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Game 4 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Buffalo Sabres

The Time: 7 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+ (HD); Radio - 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (0-2-1) at the Buffalo Sabres (1-2-0)

The Last Devils Game: A short roster of skaters still gave the Pittsburgh Penguins a fight, but a spirited third period performance wasn't enough to get out of the hole the Penguins dug the Devils in as the Devils lost 3-1.

The Last Sabres Game: The Sabres kept it close against the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks.  But they suffered from Marian Hossa's brace, which propelled Chicago to a 4-3 win.  The Sabres also suffered when Jason Pominville had to be stretchered off after this awful and illegal hit by Niklas Hjalmarsson.

The Goal: We know the Devils need a win. We know the Devils will only have 16 skaters unless the team makes a move during the day.  We know that the Devils' faults have come on defense.  Yet, I think the goal tonight should be to regularly penetrate the Buffalo blueline.  The Devils struggled at times against Dallas and Pittsburgh in doing this, and if it didn't lead to the opposition constantly attacking a constantly pressured defense, then it certainly prevented the Devils from generating many scoring chances.  The Devils did a good job of this in the first two periods against Washington, and in the third periods against Dallas and Pittsburgh, though.  Not coincidentally, those were the times the Devils really had the advantage on the ice.   Given that the Devils haven't been scoring a lot, much less winning, the Devils will have to get through Buffalo's defense and establish possession more consistently to have the best chance to succeed.   That's the first step, and so it should be the goal tonight.  If they can do that early and often enough, the goals will eventually come.

Please continue reading after the jump for additional thoughts on tonight's game as well as a few questions about Buffalo answered by Zachary Zielonka of Die by the Blade.

While in prior games (recaps here, here, and here), I've noted the team's defensive errors, I don't feel the offense is getting the attention it needs.   Maybe because it's a case of where eventually they'll start going in. The team's averaging 31.3 shots per game; it's not like they haven't been getting shots on goal. Maybe because of the pedigree of the forwards, it'll sort itself out.  After all, the forwards haven't lost their talent or anything bizarre like that. Yet, despite the talent on paper, the team has 6 goals scored in 3 games.   I'm sure the team is addressing their issues on defense, I felt they've improved on Monday compared to the first two games.  But that won't matter if the offense is struggling to produce. All that would lead to is further pressure on defense, further risking turnovers and other errors, and further hurting the Devils' cause.  

Surely, some will point to Ilya Kovalchuk and his zero goals (2 assists) regarding the early offensive struggles and asking "What's going on?"   That's fair to a point.  As Joe Fortunato pointed out in this SB-NY article, he's basically the guy to watch in the region. He got the big contract, he's been productive before, and so it's fair to expect him to lead the way.  But it's not just Kovalchuk.  It's also Zach Parise. While he has as many shots as Kovalchuk (9) and one more goal (1), he hasn't been the constant threat that we're used to seeing.    Travis Zajac has done more, possibly as a result of more attention by the defense going to Kovalchuk and Parise, though he's only got 6 shots on net.   According to Tom Gulitti yesterday, John MacLean isn't giving up on the unit.  That's fine. Even if it was preseason, there was evidence that the line could work quite well.  I just hope he's willing to make an in-game change like he did against Pittsburgh on Monday if they aren't penetrating the blueline consistently.

At least Jason Arnott has been doing quite well early.  I was shocked to learn that he just turned 36.  He's looked a lot younger out there, and it's reflected in his production.  He has put more pucks on net than any Devil (12), earned a point in each game so far in this young season, and the only thing I can really criticize him on in his faceoff winning percentage (35.2%).  Draws aside, I wonder how the Sabres will match up with him?  He's certainly deserving of the opposition's attention.

Roster wise, the Devils have replaced the demoted Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond with the signing of actual hockey player and former Sabre Adam Mair, reported here by Tom Gulitti.  Mair can play any forward position, which will make him useful with the shortened roster.  I felt John MacLean handled the forwards well enough with shortened shifts, and Rod Pelley did decently in rotation.  Mair will allow MacLean to have another option where he sees fit.  Tom Gulitti reported that Mair was centering Dainius Zubrus and David Clarkson in Tuesday's practice.  I'm not a fan of that, since Zubrus did so well at draws on Monday.  It shouldn't be a big deal though, as both can play wing as well as center.  MacLean can mix them up as needed.

Combined with the short roster and MacLean telling Gulitti that Johan Hedberg probably won't play today, I would guess that this could be the Devils' lineup:

Zach Parise - Travis Zajac - Ilya Kovalchuk
Patrik Elias - Jason Arnott - Jamie Langenbrunner
Dainius Zubrus - Adam Mair - David Clarkson
Rod Pelley (rotating into third line with Mair, Zubrus)

Colin White - Matt Taormina
Andy Greene - Henrik Tallinder
Alexander Urbom - Mark Fraser

Martin Brodeur
Johan Hedberg

As usual, I could very well be wrong.  One more thing to look for is the Greene-Tallinder pairing.  Both have had inconsistent (to put it nicely) starts to the season.  With another game together and Tallinder returning to Buffalo, today may be a game where both have a solid game.  The Colin White and Matt Taormina pairing looked a lot better in Game #3 compared to Game #1.  Hopefully, Greene-Tallinder can improve in a similar amount of time.

Let's move onto Buffalo.  Generally, the Sabres have never been easy opponents as far as I can tell.  Despite the 1-2-0 start, they don't look that way this season either.  For starters, they got a fantastic goaltender in Ryan Miller.  The Devils offense cannot just storm him with shots in the third period like they did to Brent Johnson in the last game after sporadic chances in the prior two.  Miller would simply relish the challenge, provided their team defense improves.

What? Another team with team defense issues?  John Vogl of the Buffalo News cites that as one of the early problems the team has in this short video that summarizes the first three Sabres games. The optimist will say that's definitely good to hear given my desired goal for the Devils offense to penetrate the blueline a lot. The pessimist will say that the Sabres will most definitely address that before seeing Kovalchuk, Parise, and company hit the ice.

Vogl also pointed out the Sabres' horrendous power play.  They're 2-for-15 and with Jason Pominville out with a concussion (per Mike Harrington of Buffalo News, hat-tip: Die by the Blade), further pressure falls upon the other Sabres forwards to fall.  I hope New Jersey learned the lesson of discipline from the Pittsburgh game and doesn't risk giving Buffalo several opportunities to get their groove back on the man advantage.  

I also had several questions about the Sabres and Zachary Zielonka was gracious enough to answering them.

Question 1: One the big surprises last season was how well Tyler Myers did in his rookie season. The big man from Houston won the Calder last year. Now that he's in his second NHL season, what expectations do Sabres fans have for him? Are there early signs of him meeting those expectations?

Zachary Zielonka: We expect Myers to have the same type of season that he had last year and three games in, its debatable that is going to happen. Myers was a -3 against the Rangers on Saturday night and is a -5 overall on the season, a team worst. This from a player that was a +13 on the season last year. I'm not exactly sure what the issue is with Myers at this point whether its too much pressure on himself or playing with another new linemate this season.

Question 2: A quick look at the team roster in terms of salary shows that Thomas Vanek is far and away the biggest earner on the Sabres. From the team's season preview at Die by the Blade, one of the weaknesses listed was the lack of a scorer who can "effectively scare a team."  Why isn't Vanek that player? Surely, he's being paid that much to be a scorer, or is there more to it than that?

ZZ: Vanek is paid to be a scorer, but is extremely sporadic, going on hot and cold streaks throughout the season. Ilya Kovalchuk is a player that scares you when he touches the puck and Thomas Vanek hasn't hit that stage yet. He does have a career high of 43 goals two seasons ago, but that fell to 28 goals last season and he has yet to find the back of the net this season.

Question 3: In this past summer, the Sabres signed Shaone Morrisonn, Jordan Leopold, and Rob Niedermayer. How have those three signings looked on the ice early in this season?

ZZ: All three signings have looked alright at this point during the season. Leopold has two goals and four points on the season already and both Morrisonn and Niedermayer have not done much yet in terms of offense but neither have been noticeably terrible either. It is still early and may take some time to get them in the fold.

Question 4: Patrick Kaleta is a bit of an unsung hero, playing on Buffalo's fourth line and drawing more calls than he gets. He may not play a lot, but he can make an impact on the game regardless of how much attention he commands. Who else on the Sabres should Devils fans be aware of tonight?

ZZ: Derek Roy has played like a man possessed in the first three games this season, scoring a league leading four goals. Roy must be trying the disprove his detractors from the offseason who said that he wasn't capable of being a number one center.

Question 5: Lastly, what do you think will happen in tonight's game outside of the obvious (there will be 60 minutes of hockey, someone will win, etc.)?

ZZ: The Sabres have lost two in a row and just lost one of their most reliable players in Jason Pominville so how this team will react is yet to be seen. The Sabres have yet to win at home and really need to take this game before heading on the road for two games.

Big thanks to Zachary Zielonka of Die by the Blade for answering my questions.   Needless to say, whoever's out there against Derek Roy is going to have a lot to deal with.  Hopefully it won't be the young pairing of Urbom-Fraser; and if it is, I'll just hope they make the simple plays to stop Roy and his linemates. 

Anyway, a win tonight would be fantastic for the Devils.  Going with 16 skaters (as of this writing) makes it a bit more difficult, but if the Devils can't attack Miller consistently and the Sabres' pressure forces defensive errors, then it wouldn't matter if they had 16 or 18 skaters.  As reported by Rich Chere, John MacLean isn't using the roster size as an excuse.  Fair enough.  Then the on-ice performances need to be better tonight.

Until the game gets going tonight, please share your thoughts, feelings, concerns, complaints, and other tidbits about tonight's game in the comments.  If there's any news you want to post, please provide a link.  Thanks for reading. Go Devils!