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Game 36 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Buffalo Sabres

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (19-15-1) vs. the Buffalo Sabres (17-15-3)

The Last Devils Game: The New Jersey Devils went down to Carolina and played well for about 14 minutes out of 60. The other 46 or so were all Hurricanes hockey. The Devils managed to give up another shorthanded goal; played like they did under John MacLean last season during the second period; and had a too-little-too-late desperation comeback late in the third. The Devils lost 4-2; and my recap of that game is right here.

The Last Sabres Game: Before the Devils decided to play like a hot mess in the second in Carolina, Buffalo was already cruising and bruising Washington. They scored not one, not two, not three, but four goals in the first period on the Caps. Jason Pominville scored an early power play goal; Matt Ellis and Christian Ehrhoff chipped in tallies; and a second power play goal by Brayden McNabb, his first as a NHL player all happened before the 15-minute mark. Washington would go on to cut the lead to two, but never really made much of a comeback as the Sabres still managed to out-shoot them 23-22. Buffalo coolly won 4-2.

The Last Devils-Sabres Game: Back on November 17, the New Jersey Devils were heading into Buffalo after getting rocked by Boston in a hectic third period the night prior. The Sabres had Jhonas Enroth in net, who was playing very good hockey in place of Ryan Miller. Believe it or not, the Devils showed up with their hustling skates and their offense became the big difference maker that evening. Zach Parise scored an early shorthanded goal, while Ilya Kovalchuk put up a power play goal minutes later. Tyler Myers would make it 2-1 near the end of the first period; but the Devils were not deterred. Mark Fayne scored from distance in the second period to make it 3-1 and Patrik Elias hammered home a feed from Petr Sykora to make it 4-1. While Myers would score his second of the night as Buffalo was looking for anything to make it a game; David Clarkson got on a breakaway and scored to make it 5-2, chase Enroth from the net, and secure the win. Jordan Leopold would score a consolation goal later on, but the Devils got a big 5-3 win on the road thanks to their offense. My recap of that game is here. As for an opposition-based point of view, here is Zachary Zielonka with a short recap over at Die by the Blade.

The Goal: Don't take any of the periods off. The Devils have been very porous in third periods for the last two months. In their last game, it was the second period where they essentially doomed themselves by being out-shot 13-2, taking over 16 minutes to get their first shot on goal, and saw a 1-0 deficit grow to 3-0 in the process. I'll be brief for a change: the Devils need to be more aware of the score situation and what's transpiring in front of them. If they're finding themselves going, say, 5 minutes without a shot on goal and they're not leading by a large margin, then they need to make an adjustment just to get a shot on net, just to make a stop, just to drive the net, or whatever. I'm loathe to use cliches like "play hard for all 60 minutes," but the Devils aren't likely going to win tonight or many other nights if they're not going to sharpen up their play in all three periods in regulation.

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. For the opposition's point of view, please go check out Die by the Blade.

The New Jersey Devils will see a familiar face return to the lineup. Defenseman Adam Larsson returned to the team on Tuesday and will be back on the blueline tonight. Usually, a rookie returning to the team isn't seen as a big deal; but Larsson is hardly your typical rookie. He's been playing an average of 18:33 in even strength ice time per game, the highest on the Devils this season as well as one of three Devils who have averaged over 18 even strength minutes per game. Since he's played a lot, his return should help spell Bryce Salvador and Mark Fayne and allow Peter DeBoer to be more flexible on defense. Larsson's return will also mean one of the two called-up defensemen, Alex Urbom and Matt Taormina, will sit. Personally, I think it should be Urbom as he's been the more sheltered and more defensively prone of the two Albany Devils.

Of course, it may even be both Albany players. While Tom Gulitti reported that Henrik Tallinder didn't practice on Tuesday, he did skate and Peter DeBoer said it might be possible Tallinder could come back tonight. Tallinder has been out with back spasms, so if he does get return to the lineup, his minutes could be limited. I would rather have Tallinder sit out another day, get a practice or two in, and then go back to playing big minutes as he had with New Jersey. As DeBoer told Gulitti, "we'll see."

As for forwards, the Devils will have everyone available. Amazingly or not, depending on how you view league discipline, Ryan Carter did not get suspended for his hit from behind on Jaroslav Spacek. I felt he should have been punished beyond the major and game misconduct both during the game and now after the game. It was a clear hit from behind, it was reckless, it was avoidable, and it's sort of play that can result in serious injury. I guess because Spacek didn't get hurt and the refs gave Carter a significant in-game punishment, the NHL doesn't feel the need to go further except for possibly a fine. I think that's a mistake; but what wasn't done won't be done. With Carter available, I would think DeBoer will return to the lines he has been running in the last two games. That means Adam Henrique will center Parise and Kovalchuk; Travis Zajac will be joined with Clarkson and Mattias Tedenby; and Carter can be the pivot for an enforcer and a source of energy lacking NHL-caliber talent.

Kovalchuk wasn't happy after Monday's game and I can't really say I blame him for being upset with himself. He didn't have a good game, he got handcuffed at the point that led to the team's 11th shorthanded goal allowed this season, and his pass went astray, Henrique fell down on his own, and the puck sailed into an empty net. Before the Carolina game, he's been quite fine with 8 points and 23 shots on net in his last 5 games. If he's talking about how he needs to do better, then I think he may be a bit myopic. Still, it should be a sight to see how #17 will perform tonight.

Personally, I'd like to see more from Parise. Since his four-point night against Dallas, Parise has picked up only one assist in the last four games. More worryingly is that he only has 12 shots on net across those four games and just one SOG against Carolina. I understand he's on a power line with a big shooter and a fairly productive Henrique (Last 5 games: 3 G, 1 A, 17 SOG); and I know he likes to work hard on the forecheck and in the neutral zone. Yet, it would be a big help for the team is Parise can make more offensively fruitful efforts. Effort by itself isn't going to win games.

In net, Martin Brodeur will get the start as confirmed in the end of this post by Gulitti on Tuesday. I'm fine with this decision. Based on what happened in Carolina, I'm more concerned about the skaters than the goaltenders. Can they avoid getting rolled for a period? Can they avoid getting caught out of position? Can they not take three offensive zone penalties in the first period? Can the power play not be a net negative? These are all questions for the skaters. If the Devils can answer them in the affirmative, then they should be fine. It's more reasonable than asking Brodeur or Hedberg to be a superhero for a night.

The Sabres will certainly make it difficult for the Devils tonight. As noted by Mark Harrington of the Buffalo News, the Sabres are hungry for consecutive wins. They are starved for success following success. They know they did well against the Caps and they're looking at New Jersey with the same goal in mind. As they should, since the Caps and Devils are directly competing with the Sabres in the standings at this point of the season. A late December game is rarely important, but for the short term, it's meaningful for both sides.

2011-12 - Jason Pominville 35 12 26 38 -2 6 5 1 3 99 12.1
2011-12 - Thomas Vanek 35 17 20 37 3 34 7 0 4 105 16.2
2011-12 - Derek Roy 35 8 15 23 -5 28 2 0 0 83 9.6

If you must know only two Sabres forwards in advance of tonight's game, make it these two: Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek. They are not just first and second respectively in team scoring, but they're making their way up the leading scorers chart in the league. Pominville is similar to Elias in the way he just has great vision with a pretty good way of finishing plays of his own. Vanek has a fantastic shot, but he's been just as productive setting up his teammates too. Vanek's been banged up as of late and the fact he has 1 SOG in his last three games suggests he may not be all that dangerous tonight. Then again, he's has an assist in each of those same three games. Derek Roy usually centers Pominville and Roy and while he's not up there in points, 23 is nothing to sneeze at - especially since he's third on the team in scoring.

If there's a criticism to make about this trio, it's that they have taken on tough competition at evens this season and lost in possession for the most part. Roy's just above zero in on-ice Corsi while Pominville and Vanek are really in deep at the wrong end of the value. It suggests that whoever the Devils match-up against them can find offensive success while playing them. They may have to since keeping either of the three forwards off the scoresheet has been a challenge for the rest of the league this season.

Just as the Devils will be welcoming Larsson back, the Sabres enjoyed the return of Jochen Hecht and Brad Boyes on Monday against Washington. Each picked up primary assists, a shot on goal, and a little over 12 minutes of ice time at even strength. OK, they're not necessarily difference makers, but they'll boost a group of secondary scorers that has really only featured Luke Adam and Drew Stafford (the Sabres' best possession forward). The Sabres have been without Nathan Gerbe and Ville Leino due to injury. While Gerbe is getting closer to returning from his concussion, per this post by Mark Harrington of the Buffalo News, he's not going to play tonight. If the Devils can somehow keep Buffalo's top three forwards at bay and don't get wrecked by Stafford, then they could enjoy a far better night than what they experienced on Monday.

The Devils offense really should just because Buffalo has been very poor when it comes to preventing shots. They have averaged 31.5 shots against per game, the fifth highest in the league; and they only have generated an average of 29.3 shots for per game. This is a Sabres team that has been out-shot regularly at even strength and so they're well behind 50% in team Fenwick% in close score situations. Their defense is missing the massive Tyler Myers, which has hurt since he's second on the team in average ice time per game at 21:03. Yet, it's not like Myers was pushing the play forward. In terms of on-ice Corsi at Behind the Net, the only regular Sabres defensemen who is positive is Andrej Sekera, who doesn't start in the defensive zone a majority of the time or face the toughest competition. Their leader in minutes, Christian Ehrhoff (24:01/game), and their other 20+ minute defenseman, Jordan Leopold (20:03/game), both have been quite negative. Myers has been far worse than those two; though not as bad as Brayden McNabb and especially not as bad as Robyn Regher. Regher amazingly continues to take on the toughest competition regularly on the entire team, start in his own end of the rink a lot, and he's been destroyed in possession. It's one thing to see a call-up like McNabb do so poorly, but it's another when it's a regular veteran defenseman. Why Lindy Ruff keeps giving him those assignments, I couldn't tell you. I hope the Devils exploit him and Buffalo's depleted defense as much as possible. They really should if only to make up for their lack of it in the Carolina game.

2011-12 - Ryan Miller 20 1101 9 8 2 56 3.05 582 526 .904 .907 1

At least Buffalo has a wonderful goaltender behind such a defense in Ryan Miller, right? Well, his numbers aren't exactly in line with a wonderful goaltender. Definitely not in last five appearances, where he got yanked once after allowing 5 goals on 15 shots and allowing 12 in the other four starts. Yet, given the team's depleted defense, perhaps it's not all Miller's fault. Perhaps he's been victimized by errors by the skaters and so the numbers look worse than his actual performance. I'm assuming that since Miller played and won against the Caps without getting shelled that he'll start tonight for them tonight. As I recall, Miller has been aggressive and quick in the crease; the Devils should look to turn his aggressiveness in net against him by trying to get him moving. I don't mean cross-ice passes from point-to-point or point-to-corner; but shorter ones into or across the slot. While he is fast, he's not going to be fast enough to get recover on his flank every time. Given the Sabres' defense is depleted and not that effective, it may just work. If my assumption is wrong, then expect Jhonas Enroth to start. The Devils perhaps should hope for him, as the Devils lit him up for 5 goals in the last Devils-Sabres game.

One final point: I would prefer the Devils to keep this game at 5-on-5 as much as possible. The Sabres are a pretty successful team on the power play with a 18.9% success rate (11th in the NHL) and the fourth highest SF/60 in the league at 55.4. As great as the Devils penalty killers have been this season, it would be unwise to keep giving the Sabres power play chances to succeed. They can make NJ pay. On the flipside, the Sabres' penalty killers have also been quite successful at 83.8% (10th in the NHL); though their SA/60 rate of 51.8 isn't good enough to boast. Then again, the Devils should avoid seeking out PPs because it means they'll be on the power play.

That takes care of my thoughts on this game, so now I want to know yours. How do you think Adam Larsson will do on defense tonight? Will Ilya Kovalchuk have a big night? Will Parise? Who else on the Devils will have to do well for the Devils to get a result? Can the Devils keep Pominville, Vanek, and/or Roy off the score sheet? Can the Devils make it a long night for what's remaining of the Buffalo defense and their goaltender, be it Miller or Enroth? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments.