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Game 48 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Buffalo Sabres

Do this more often tonight, Devils.  Though, you may want to have more bodies around the goaltender.  (Photo by Norman Y. Lono/Getty Images)
Do this more often tonight, Devils. Though, you may want to have more bodies around the goaltender. (Photo by Norman Y. Lono/Getty Images)
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The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

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

The Game: The New Jersey Devils (26-19-2) vs. the Buffalo Sabres (19-24-5)

The Last Devils Game: On Saturday, the Devils hosted their Second Rate Rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers in an afternoon game. From an aesthetic and flow standpoint, it was one ugly game. The Devils had the advantage at 5-on-5 but they didn't exactly make the most of their opportunities. As the game got feistier and grittier, penalties mounted and special teams became important. The Devils, as usual, were inconsistent and ultimately ineffective on their many power plays. In contrast, the Flyers took advantage of having an extra man on the ice and scored on two of their power plays. Those two power play goals eventually won them the game and gave them an insurance goal in the third period. The Devils couldn't answer them and Philly tacked on an empty net goal to make it a 4-1 loss. My recap of the game is here.

The Last Sabres Game: On Saturday night, the Sabres visited St. Louis in an attempt to actually get a result on the road. Unfortunately for Buffalo, they failed again. While the Sabres struck first with Mike Weber's first goal of the season in the first period; the Blues came out hard in the second period. They out-shot the Sabres 14-9 and out-scored them 2-0: B.J. Crombeen's first of the season tied up the game and David Perron gave the home team the lead. A little past halfway through the third, the Blues increased their lead further when David Backes scored on the power play. The Sabres got desperate late and seemingly got a lifeline when Tyler Myers hammered in a shot on the power play to make it 3-2. It wasn't to be when Backes iced the game with an empty net goal, his fourth point of the evening, and sent the Sabres packing with a 4-2 loss.

The Last Devils-Sabres Game: These two teams last met on December 28, 2011 in Newark. The home team Devils certainly put up a good effort that evening. Petr Sykora scored two goals: the first being a fluke and the second coming from one excellent shot. Zach Parise tipped a Mark Fayne shot past Ryan Miller to make it 3-0 and give the home faithful something to feel good about. At least, those who didn't remember or want to recall past third period meltdowns felt good. They right to feel that way on that evening. The Devils held strong in the third period thanks to the defense and Martin Brodeur. Only a Thomas Vanek PPG - a close rebound - cut into the lead. New Jersey won the game 3-1. My recap of the victory is here. For an opposition perspective, David Oleksy has this summary over at Die by the Blade.

The Goal: Stay out of the box; don't give away man advantages to the Sabres. After the jump, I'm going to provide more detail but to keep it short here, the Sabres are not a good 5-on-5 team. However, they are a pretty good power play team. They are about average when it comes to power play success as they are tied for fourteenth in the league with a 18.3% success rate. They are also fifteenth in the league in power play opportunities with 165. What hasn't been so average is their shot generation. In 5-on-4 situations, they are tied for eighth in the league in SF/60 with 52.5. That's a rate even higher than the Flyers. Moreover, Buffalo's top two scorers, Jason Pominville (6 PPGs) and Thomas Vanek (8 PPGs) have been prolific in these situations. The Devils' penalty kill has been a bit vulnerable in recent games and the Sabres could take full advantage like the Flyers did on Saturday. While I don't think the PK is suddenly a paper tiger, they can do themselves some favors by not going to the box so much. If they hand Buffalo many (4+) opportunities on the power play, then they are just making this game more difficult for themselves than it really needs to be.

I have more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. For an opposition perspective, please check out Die by the Blade.

In addition to staying out of the box, under no circumstances should the Sabres be underestimated by the Devils. It's easy to look at the Sabres and think that this should be an easy victory for the Devils. Buffalo has fallen to the bottom of the East. They lost their last five games in a row, all on the road. That latter point is important as the Sabres have lost their last 12 road games and all of those losses were in regulation. The last time the Sabres won a road game was on December 3, 2011. It's easy to look at those facts and come away feeling pretty good about New Jersey's chances. It's even easier given the descriptions of the team after their most recent loss in this article by Mike Harrington in the Buffalo News.

However, I am taking the opposite view. Because the Sabres have fallen so far and what was written in Harrington's article, I see them as an unpredictable opponent. If they've hit bottom, then they have nowhere to go but up. We've seen this last season with the Devils and it can go in all sorts of directions. Maybe they'll flop on the ice. Maybe they'll do really well but not get the breaks. Maybe they'll actually get the breaks. Maybe they'll just be awesome for just one night. While they're still technically on a road trip, they actually went home after the St. Louis game as noted in Harrington's article. The team knows it's been bad, perhaps that respite from the road will spark them. It sounds crazy, but so is losing 12 straight road games with everything gone awry in the last five.

This isn't to say the Sabres are really better than their record indicates. Buffalo's not a good hockey team this season. They're one of the worst teams in the NHL when it comes to possession. Their close-score Fenwick% is in the bottom in the league at 46.78%. They're even lower (but better relative to other teams) in close-score Fenwick% on the road at 44.63%. In looking at the situational team numbers, the Sabres get out-shot regularly at 5-on-5 with rates of 28.2 SF/60 and 30.3 SA/60. They get out-scored regularly as they are averaging 2.40 goals per game and 3.04 goals against per game this season. Beyond Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek, Buffalo has struggled to get production from other skaters - Derek Roy is third on the team with 23 points (9 G, 16 A), well behind Pominville's 46 and Vanek's 41. Martin Brodeur and Ilya Bryzgalov could send a card to Ryan Miller at this point which just reads "I understand." For these reasons alone, this is not a good hockey team.

At the same time, the Devils have had games against poor possession teams in the past this season and had struggles of their own. The Devils beat on Minnesota and Calgary in possession, but only did so when they were losing by considerable margins in the game. They lost those games. The Devils did get wins over Carolina, Tampa Bay, and Edmonton; but those games often didn't feature New Jersey beating on them for 60 minutes or so. The numbers presented have been true over the whole season; it's evidence that they're not good teams. Yet, on a single game night, the story may be entirely different. So while the Devils have two regulation wins over Buffalo and the Sabres have been defending far more than attacking, it doesn't mean that will happen again. It's more reason for the Devils to act as if Buffalo is a very good team even if the numbers state otherwise.

2011-12 - Jason Pominville 48 17 30 47 -7 8 6 1 4 132 12.9
2011-12 - Thomas Vanek 48 19 22 41 -5 40 8 0 4 132 14.4

The main targets for the Devils' defense and likely the Patrik Elias line are Pominville and Vanek. They both shoot a lot, they both score a lot, and they both make a lot of plays happen. It's no wonder they are Buffalo's top two forwards. According to Behind the Net, they both get a majority of their zone starts are in the offensive zone and they both face the toughest competition among Buffalo forwards at evens. What they both don't do is push the play forward. They are well below zero in Corsi and if one is to adjust for zone starts, they would be more negative. What this means is that they are productive but regularly getting into spots to be productive has been a struggle this season. They both can't be taken lightly. Limiting their effect on tonight's game would go a long way towards a Devils victory.

The Devils forwards in general would be wise to take full advantage of a not-so-impressive Buffalo defense. So far this season, everyone not named Andrej Sekera has been negative in on-ice Corsi. Sekera himself isn't that far above zero, either. They're certainly not helping the offensive cause. They'll get a boost of sorts tonight; John Vogl of the Buffalo News reported that Christian Ehrhoff will return to action tonight. Ehrhoff is an offensive-minded defenseman who can eat up big minutes. It's unclear how he'll do after being out for some time, but he should be an upgrade over whoever he replaces. The Sabres remain without Robyn Regher (Sort-of Asid: Per Vogl, they'll also be without forwards Tyler Ennis, Paul Gaustad, and possibly an ill Brad Boyes), so it's expected that Tyler Myers, Sekera, and Mike Weber will play a lot tonight and against decent competition. As a unit, they allow quite a few shots on net and so the Devils should look to fire away. Especially if they face Ryan Miller in net, who's got a very uninspiring stat line.

2011-12 - Ryan Miller 29 1598 11 15 2 84 3.15 813 729 .897 1

I have to wonder whether the Devils emphasized that in Monday's practice. They certainly spent quite a bit of time on the ice and said a bit about needing to score more, as noted in this Monday post by Tom Gulitti. The length of practice apparently had more to do with working on parts of their game (read: power play) rather than institute something completely different. There may be one or two changes in the lineup, though. The Devils did call up defenseman Peter Harrold from Albany and Peter DeBoer said he "might" play tonight, according to this post by Gulitti on Monday. It will be interesting to see whether Harrold comes in for Matt Taormina or Kurtis Foster. Harrold is described as an offensive defenseman of sorts and he did work on the power play according to Gulitti's report. Neither Foster or Taormina has contributed much in the last few games, so this may be a way for the Devils to give someone else a look. Personally, I'd rather have Harrold act as a seventh defenseman and the fourth line can just be shortened to Ryan Carter and only one of Eric Boulton, Brad Mills (if he's not sick), and Cam Janssen. This would keep Foster and Taormina active and give DeBoer an option to cycle in Harrold if either isn't doing so well on the ice. It's not like DeBoer uses the fourth line as-is for much of the game anyway. The likelihood of this happening is slim, though.

That all said, the rest of the Devils lineup should remain the same. Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, and Adam Henrique haven't do so well in the last two games on offense. It would help if they could at least attempt more shots and get more of them on net tonight. The Elias line needs to guard well against Pominville and Vanek and contribute consistent offense of their own. As the team is designed, the top six has to carry the offense and so they need to do again - simple as. I am interested in seeing how Alexei Ponikarovsky looks now that he's had a practice session with the team. While I liked his Devils debut, I hope it'll lead to a more involved game from him. As for the defense, they just need to keep preventing shots and minimize the big mistakes.

Gulitti did confirm on Monday that Martin Brodeur will get the start. He's been in a groove of sorts from the Winnipeg games onward. Sure, six goals got past him in the last two games, but none of them were his fault and three of them came on the power play. The numbers remain unkind, but Brodeur hasn't let up a soft goal in his last three starts. Of the Devils issues in recent games, Brodeur is the least of their concerns. He should be fine in net tonight. As for those wishing to see Johan Hedberg, I wouldn't worry. The schedule is a lot busier after the All Star Game and Moose will have his opportunities to play.

That's my take on tonight's game; now I want to know what you think. Do you think the Devils will snap their own losing streak? Will the Sabres come out strong and really give a challenge as I fear, or will they falter like they have in their last 12 road games? Who on the Devils do you think has to have a big game tonight for the team to win? Who on the Sabres are you the most concerned with? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.