For the first time in ages, New Jersey will not see Lindy Ruff behind the bench for Buffalo.
The Time: 3:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
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The Last Devils Game: On Thursday night, the Devils went into Winnipeg after a three day break between the last Devils-Jets game. The night set some Devils history when Andrew Ladd got a breakaway shortly after the opening faceoff and scored on Johan Hedberg eight seconds into the game. Ladd's goal became the fastest ever allowed by the Devils in franchise history. After weathering the Jets' attack for most of the first period, the Devils clawed their way back into the game with possession and attempts. Andrei Loktionov tied the game up early in the second period when he gained the zone, cut in enough past Ron Hainsey, and fired one past Ondrej Pavelec. The Devils had the better run of play but they couldn't get that second goal. The game opened up in the third period, but the Jets were the ones to provide the breakthrough moment. Dustin Byfuglien went end to end to kick off a 4-on-4 situation and Hedberg totally sold out to his left, lied on his side and stacked the pads. Big Buff wisely just went around him, went for a wrap, got denied, and Ladd tapped in the rebound to make it 2-1. Despite a breakaway, further pressure, and pulling the extra man, all it yielded was no goals for and an empty net against to make it a 3-1 defeat in Winnipeg. I didn't think the Devils played a bad game; they just didn't get the breaks so their disastrous moments cost them dearly. I explained it as best as I could in this recap of the loss.
The Last Sabres Game: While the Devils were in Winnipeg, the Sabres took to the ice in Sunrise against the Florida Panthers. They won their last game to snap a four-game losing streak and were looking to build on that. A little after six minutes into the opening period, little Nathan Gerbe opened up the scoring with his first goal of the season. The Sabres extended their lead to two when a loose puck got slapped out to the left of Scott Clemmensen and right to Tyler Ennis. Ennis fires one past the goalie's flank to make it 2-0. The Panthers would not take this lying down. Drew Shore converted a power play when Dmitry Kulikov fed him in the slot and less than a minute after that, Marcel Goc equalized the game. Gerbe took back the lead with a lovely individual effort to get past Erik Gudbranson and fire one over (through?) Clemmensen less than a minute after Goc's goal. Florida made a goalie change and really turned up the pressure in the second period, out-shooting the Sabres 16-5. Ryan Miller did what he could as his team weathered the storm. Florida kept it up in the third period, out-shooting the Sabres 14-6 and eventually got the goal they desired. Goc won a faceoff and Brian Campbell settled it to fire a slapshot that got all the way through with less than two minutes left to play. Overtime yielded no winner, but the Sabres' Tomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, and Miller were perfect in the shootout to take the second point. It's a second consecutive win for Buffalo and Zachary Zielonka recapped it here at Die by the Blade.
The Goal: Take advantage of possession and fire away at all times. While the Sabres pulled out the shootout win in Florida, they allowed 43 shots to get there. In their losing-streak snapping win against Tampa Bay, they allowed 31. The Sabres have only allowed less than 30 shots in one of their last ten games, and it was 28 in a 2-1 loss to Winnipeg. Buffalo is last in the league in overall shots against per game average at 33.9. According to Behind the Net, they have the highest SA/60 rate in the league in 5-on-5 situations at 32.8. In terms of Fenwick percentages, they're right near the bottom in Fenwick% in close-score, tied-score, and up-by-one-goal situations at even strength. Buffalo isn't just a shot-colander at even strength. Buffalo also has the second highest SA/60 rate in the league in 4-on-5 situations at 57.3. Even with Ron Rolston taking over as coach, the Sabres have remained very leaky on defense. It won't be easy for the Devils in that they haven't generated a lot of shots per game themselves. But if there's a game to expect them to get lots of shots, then this is the one. They had the possession against Winnipeg on Thursday, today, they need to make sure the puck goes at or past the goalie instead of into the defenders. Based on past Sabres games, it is most definitely there for the taking.
Additionally, it would be a good idea for the Devils to simply not underestimate the Sabres. They did win two games now and the last two games against last-place Washington should serve notice that the record doesn't apply in every game. I don't think the Sabres are all that good but they definitely have some serious talent who can turn this game on it's ear if New Jersey isn't careful.
First and foremost, the Devils have to keep Tomas Vanek to a minimum. That's a lot easier said than done. He's third in the NHL in scoring with 12 goals and 17 assists and ninth in the NHL with 73 shots on net. Vanek leads the team in even strength scoring (6 G, 12 A) and power play scoring (5 G, 3 A) and he's just a handful to deal with in general. He's one of the few Sabres who aren't severely negative in on-ice Corsi rate this season. Should Peter DeBoer want to find a matchup to put his best defensive players out there, then it should be Vanek's unit.
Second, Vanek isn't the only offensive player who can cause damage. Jason Pominville has emerged as an important player for the Sabres in his career. His seven goals and eight assists are worth paying attention to in terms of production and he leads all Buffalo forwards in average ice time per game with 20:31. The Devils will see a lot of him whether they want to or not. Cody Hodgson is young and already a member of the top six with eight goals, nine assists, and 58 shots. Tyler Ennis is having a strong season with seven goals, nine assists, 61 shots (second behind Vanek), and actually has a positive on-ice Corsi rate, one of four on the team according to Behind the Net. Steve Ott has been a sparkplug and a real pain to play against. While he has been demolished in terms of possession, the team's scoring more with him out there than allowing and he's chipped in with three goals and six assists to go with usual annoyance. Lastly, Drew Stafford has been snakebit with only one goal and eight assists this season. He does have 55 shots on net so, like Gerbe in Florida, it may be only a matter of time before he gets going. Buffalo as a team aren't shabby at all at generating shots on net. They average 29.6 shots per game, which is above the league median - as is their 5-on-5 SF/60 rate of 29.0. The team's not horribly unlucky at scoring goals; they just give up a lot of shots, attempts, and - as a result - goals.
Third, Christian Ehrhoff is a jewel among a pile of sand that is the Buffalo blueline. According to Behind the Net, Ehrhoff actually leads the Sabres' defensemen in on-ice Corsi rate and has a strong one even though he's not facing the toughest competition or getting more offensive zone starts than defensive ones. Nonetheless, in the land of the blind, the man with one eye is king and that's Ehrhoff in that crude metaphor. He leads their defense in points with two goals and eight assists. He leads them in shots on net with 42. And the Devils will see him quite a lot as he averages 24:03 per game in ice time to also lead the blueline. The thing with Buffalo's defense is that other teams have pounded Tyler Myers, Jordan Leopold, Andrej Sekera, John Scott, and so forth in the possession game. The only exception has been Alexander Sulzer, who hasn't played since February 23 and otherwise has been used on low-pairing.
Lastly, Ryan Miller is more than capable of trying to keep his team in a game. Just look at their last two wins or their myriad of close losses. Miller's clearly doing his job every night. His numbers reflect it too. He's got a very solid 92.5% save percentage at evens; his 88.9% penalty kill save percentage is pretty good. Going back to the goal, it could be that the Devils pretty much have to take advantage of the Sabres' porous defense and poor possession game to get enough shots to eventually overwhelm Miller. That could be a lot. If the Devils can't figure it out - and given their recent lack of goal scoring, we can't rule that possibility out - we could see a repeat of what we saw on Thursday. On Friday, Mike Harrington at the Buffalo News confirmed that Miller will start his twelfth in a row today.
Buffalo could have a different look as of late today. On Friday night, Harrington also reported at Sabres Edge that the team called up Brian Flynn. The Sabres already had 23 men on their roster so either someone's hurt and going on injured reserved or someone's getting moved. Harrington noted that Jordan Leopold could be put on IR since he's been out since February 17. That seems likely to me since they could place him retroactively on injured reserve - as I don't think he'll play today - get Flynn in and then move him back when Leopold can return. That's just my guess. We shall see whether Flynn gets active for this game or if he's only cover for a worst-case scenario and returned back to Rochester.
The Devils will have another change to their lineup for sure. Tom Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice on Friday morning that the team re-activated Ryan Carter. He was out with a concussion, but he's feeling good and cleared to play so he's back. As a result, the team sent Tim Sestito back to Albany. That alone is an improvement because Sestito is simply terrible at the game of hockey at the NHL level. My expectations weren't high for Carter to begin with; just chip in some offense, don't get mauled on defense, and don't take bad penalties. I think he can get back to meeting them in short order.
Despite the sudden lack of Energy™, there should be some new lines tomorrow. From Gulitti's report at practice, it appears Carter was re-united with Steve Bernier and Stephen Gionta. Alexei Ponikarovsky, Adam Henrique, and Bobby Butler made one unit while Stefan Matteau got moved up to play with Andrei Loktionov and Ilya Kovalchuk. I understand Loktionov has been playing well in recent games. But I really don't see Matteau-Loktionov-Kovalchuk lasting throughout a game. Kovalchuk will play a lot and face at least a decent level of competition. I don't think Loktionov can really handle that and I'm sure Matteau can't for long. I personally would rather see Henrique at wing with Kovalchuk for another game as Henrique got three shots out of six attempts on Thursday. Should those lines start the game, don't be surprised if you see in-game changes by DeBoer.
That's really where the changes end. The unit of Patrik Elias, David Clarkson, and Travis Zajac remains together to drive the play and make good things happen. Why? Because People Play Well with Patrik. The defensive set-up that started Thursday night stayed together, which is fine except I'd rather see Marek Zidlicky and Mark Fayne swapped. Johan Hedberg will start today's game as Martin Brodeur remains on IR (per Gulitti, Lou thinks he may be out through Monday) and there's no real benefit to putting a rookie goalie in net when the team's struggling to score and lost their last three games.
Since the Devils have struggled to score goals, then all they can really do about that is to keep shooting. If there's one aspect where they can improve in that regard, then it's on the power play. The Devils have scored only one power play goal in their last five games and that one came in a period where they got five in a row. Even then, the team just hasn't generated a lot on a single power play since their first two against Ottawa. The Sabres' OK success rate of 80.5% is really driven by the play of Miller as far as I can tell. As noted in the goal, the Sabres have been allowing a lot of shots against. They are also very familiar with killing penalties because Buffalo is one of five teams who have been shorthanded more times than New Jersey this season. There will be opportunities today. It behooves the Devils to do more than just get one shot, keep possession up high, and do little with the rest of the time. They can start by stop trying to gain the zone with a dump-in with a man advantage.
As a final point, Lindy Ruff was an institution as Buffalo's head coach. However, nothing that can go on forever does and amid Buffalo's struggles, Ruff was let go. He has been replaced by Ron Rolston, the head coach of their minor league affiliate. I'm not sure of his tendencies. I am sure the Sabres players are still getting used to his approaches, tactics, and game philosophies. Matthew Coller has a fantastic article at Hockey Prospectus explaining why Ruff went out, how Rolston differs, and names a few Sabres who may benefit from the coaching change. Coller names Hodgson as one and he's been receiving more offensive zone starts as of late (he's up to 51.1% now), so he could be turning a corner defensively.
That's my take on today's game, now I want to know yours. Do you think the Devils will be able to take advantage of Buffalo's leaky defense and poor possession game? Will that possession result in more shots than what we've seen against Winnipeg? Can the Devils keep Vanek quiet and keep the rest of Buffalo's forwards at bay? How do you think they should attack Miller? What do you think the Devils should do against Buffalo to win today other than the obvious "score more than them" answer? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on today's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.