It's the midpoint of the season for New Jersey and the home team needs a win so, so badly.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (10-8-5) vs. the Buffalo Sabres (9-13-2; SBN Blog: Die by the Blade)
The TiqIQ Ticket Link: Do you need that last minute ticket to this very game? Don't go to the Rock and hunt one down. Take care of it now by visiting our partners at TiqIQ to find some from the secondary market with this link: New Jersey Devils tickets.
The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday night, the Devils hosted the Tampa Bay Lightning. In the first period, the Devils did a lot of good work but a mistake by the defense led to Nate Thompson getting the puck all alone in the slot with Johan Hedberg. He scored and the first ended 0-1 Tampa Bay. The Lightning would pour on the misery when Martin St. Louis finished off a three-on-two that made Bryce Salvador and Mark Fayne look silly in the second period to make it 0-2. While the Devils mostly failed to put rubber on Anders Lindback, Alex Killorn curled from the left corner to the high slot (with the captain chasing him to no avail) and ripped one low to make it 0-3 later in the second. The goal led to a goalie switch, giving Keith Kinkaid his first taste of the NHL. The crowd applauded the move but the team on the ice failed to make any kind of push at a comeback. Nate Thompson was once again wide open in the middle on a rush up-ice and he scored his second of the night and gave Kinkaid his first GA. With less than seven minutes left, Ryan Carter won a puck that yielded a shorthanded goal by Adam Henrique. From then, the Devils of the first period seemed to return to attack. The Devils got their first power play goal in five games when Ilya Kovalchuk took a slapshot, Travis Zajac fished it out, and Patrik Elias put home the loose puck to make it 2-4. But the comeback didn't go any further and B.J. Crombeen ended the too-little-too-late advance with an empty netter to make it a 5-2 loss. My unhappy and poor recap of a poor game by the Devils that left the fans unhappy is here.
The Last Sabres Game: The Sabres were on a 3-0-1 roll entering a road game against the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night. The Canes quickly made it clear to Buffalo that things would be different thanks to Jiri Tlusty scoring 1:31 into the game. The Canes out-shot the Sabres 12-6 in the first and kept up firing away at Ryan Miller in the second period. Joe Corvo doubled Carolina's lead with a power play goal past halfway through the second. However, the Sabres were somehow inspired by the deficit to start throwing everything at Justin Peters, who started his first NHL game that night. They ended up with 16 shots on him in the second period after getting out-shot 3-6 for most of the first ten minutes of the second, including Thomas Vanek - he's back! - getting absolutely robbed at the net. Buffalo got rewarded for their efforts 25 seconds in the third period when Cody Hodgson had it all alone in front of Peter and he scored to make it 2-1. The Canes hit back less than a minute later when the Sabres defense faltered and Jussi Jokinen beat Miller with a shot. After a myriad of Sabres shots and a 5-on-3, T.J. Brennan converted the following 5-on-4 after the two man advantage ended to make it 3-2 Carolina. But Alexander Semin took back the two-goal lead less than two minutes later. Hodgson torched everyone on a shorthanded individual effort and scored to pull Buffalo within one but that would be it for the scoring. While the Sabres wrecked the Canes 18-4 in shots, they lost 4-3 to end their regulation-undefeated streak at four games. Zachary Zielonka explained it all in this recap at Die by the Blade.
The Last Devils-Sabres Game: These teams first met for the first time this season on March 2 in Buffalo and Thomas Vanek wasn't involved due to an injury. The game proved feisty early with Steve Ott and Patrick Kaleta getting in the heads of the Devils. The resulting penalty calls didn't lead to much and the Devils ended the first on the good foot of possession. the scoring opened in the second period when Marek Zidlicky got beat to a cleared puck on a power play by Cody Hodgson. Bobby Butler didn't pick up the trailing Jason Pominville, so it was pass-shot-groan to a 0-1 deficit. It didn't last long as a double-deflection of a Mark Fayne shot went off Steve Bernier's pants and into the net to tie it up minutes later. The third period looked promising when Adam Henrique won a puck in the neutral zone and went on a breakaway thanks to Pominville's not-defense. Henrique scored to make it 2-1. Pominville would have his revenge and appropriately hustled past Stefan Matteau as Adam Larsson got caught up in the neutral zone. Hodgson saw Pominville streaking in on the left side and the pass led to a shot that Hedberg couldn't reach to tie it up. The Devils got sloppy in their own end before halfway through the third and Jochen Hecht got his first of the season off Bernier's stick in the fracas to make it 3-2 Buffalo. The Devils would not go down easily like they did in other third periods, though. A pretty backhand pass by Kovalchuk to Matteau by the crease led to an even prettier no-look backhand pass across the slot to Andrei Loktionov. Lokitonov curled around Miller and slid it into the net to make it 3-3. Overtime would be necessary and despite a bad penalty by Marek Zidlicky, the Devils came out of it relatively unscathed. Yet, the shootout would be like the last two: goals by the Sabres, none by the Devils. So the Devils earned a point but still lost 4-3 in Buffalo. Jerry had the recap of that game here at ILWT, noting that while the Devils out-possessed and shot the Sabres, they were behind in scoring chances. Zachary Zielonka recapped the game here at Die by the Blade, praising Pominville for most of his performance.
The Goal: Take advantage of possession, and this time, get pucks on net. It's only been a few games for both teams since they last met. Buffalo remains one of the worst possession teams in the league. They're near the bottom in Fenwick% in close-score situations per Behind the Net and in Corsi% in 5-on-5 situations per Hockey Analysis. They are not a good possession team. The Devils have been successful in their recent games during their six-game slide at out-attempting their opponents. However, as I pointed out last night in a post about the Devils' slump, they're not always getting those attempts on net; not nearly as much as their opponents do with their attempts. While Ryan Miller, tonight's likely starter because who knows when Jhonas Enroth will play again, is a very good goaltender (dig that 92.4% save percentage at evens), it behooves the struggling scorers of the Devils to put the puck on frame. Throwing up lots of misses and blocks won't get it done, even though it'll represent the possession of the game. Fortunately, according to Behind the Net, tonight's opponent has the third highest SA/60 rate in 5-on-5 play in the entire league at 31.7. It is most certainly possible for the Devils skaters to beat Christian Ehrhoff, Tyler Myers, and so forth. They just have to go out there and make it happen in their latest attempt to end this losing streak.
The Devils will also have to go out there and deal without Patrick Kaleta being a pain. Kaleta was suspended for a terrible hit on Brad Richards and so he's serving the second of a five-game suspension tonight. The Sabres still have Steve Ott and a number of other guys with a proclivity for doing dumb physical things (e.g. Robyn Regher throwing a free shot to Kovalchuk's back near the end of regulation on March 2). Buffalo will be OK because the Devils will have to deal with Thomas Vanek tonight. Vanek didn't play on March 2. Vanek will be a big factor because he is arguably Buffalo's top forward with 12 goals, 16 assists, 75 shots on net, and one of the few Sabres who aren't significantly drowning in their on-ice Corsi rate. He will be a force at evens and he should boost the Sabres' power play. They need it as the team has the lowest success rate in the league right now at 11.5%. For a laugh, look at New Jersey's.
It'll be more than just the Vanek show from Buffalo. Cody Hodgson is coming off a two-goal night against Carolina and he set-up Pominville for two goals against New Jersey two games ago. Hodgson is no longer getting mostly tough starts as head coach Ron Rolston realizes he's a young offensive player who would benefit from easier situations. Now, Hodgson's not a possession black hole and he's second on the team in scoring with ten goals and eleven assists with 65 shots. In addition to Hodgson, Jason Pominville hurt the Devils with a shorty, an even strength goal, and a shootout winner on March 2. He plays in all situations and has been one of Buffalo's core players for a while like Vanek. He's third on the team in scoring with nine goals, eleven assists, and 69 shots; should he be left uncovered, he can do it again. Unless the data at Left Wing Lock is mistaken, Vanek-Hodsgon-Pominville was a line against Carolina. I wouldn't be surprised if the Devils see them together tonight. If so, I hope Peter DeBoer gets the right match-up against them. That means it shouldn't involve Stephen Gionta whatsoever.
Outside of that combination, Tyler Ennis has been rather productive with seven goals, ten assists, and 68 shots but it's slim pickings for a team that hasn't shot well all season. Nathan Gerbe got ran over in possession on March 2, but I suspect with Steve Ott and Ennis, he won't be as bad. Drew Stafford is better than his current bottom six spot but with only two goals out of 61 shots, he's not likely to move up anytime soon. The Sabres don't have a generating shots-problem and the 40 they put up on Carolina proved it. That said, I think the Devils have a better defense than the Canes and showed that in Buffalo on March 2. On defense, Ehrhoff is doing what he can, Jordan Leopold is still out for quite some time per John Vogl at Sabres Edge, Alexander Sulzer hasn't been a consistent nightmare, and everyone else just isn't winning at all at possession. Again, they've been allowing a lot of shots against at even strength and that means there are the sort of mistakes Vogl highlighted in their recent loss at Carolina. The Devils can and should pick on them. The question is who will get to do it?
Against Tampa Bay, Travis Zajac, Ryan Carter, and Steve Bernier were actually a working unit in terms of generating shots and attempts. I'd like to see them together again, if only to show Ilya Kovalchuk was a consistent attacker when the team was actually attacking, so I figure he'll be good. It would be cool if Matt Shaw sets up a power play that uses him at the right point where he belongs with his wicked shot. It yielded one PPG on Tuesday, it might even lead to more. I'm just saying.
Speaking of things I'd like to see, I'd like to see a lot more effectivness from David Clarkson and Patrik Elias tonight. Clarkson was more involved in beef than shots against Tampa Bay. Elias, goal aside, just wasn't his usual effective self for one reason or another. He just came out ahead in possession and wasn't really getting a lot going at evens. I'd like to think it was just an off night from him. He'll be fine based on his history and his otherwise great season so far; I just want to see that tonight. As for Clarkson, someone should give him a message from someone that fists aren't going to end his nine-game goalless streak. Should he respond accordingly, he'll get back to what he needs to do to help the team. Defensively, I only have one pairing to call out. Bryce Salvador absolutely has to be better tonight. He was just all over the place and often not in the right one against Tampa Bay. Mark Fayne didn't look good earlier but it would have helped if he didn't have a partner faltering so much.
Now, there should be some changes in the lineup. While the Devils only had a morning skate on Thursday, the team was active with their roster. Tom Gulitti reported on Wednesday morning at Fire & Ice that the Devils sent down Cam Janssen (yay) and Keith Kinkaid while calling up Jeff Frazee. Lou clarified that latter decision in this post by Gulitti, explaining that since Peter DeBoer would be starting Johan Hedberg tonight, it would better suit Kinkaid to play in Albany. I can understand that and while Kinkaid faced more shots and played more down in Albany, Frazee has had the superior save percentage with the A-Devs this season. I have no issue with his call up. All the same, Moose needs to be better as we hope Martin Brodeur's back does. Moose can only be better if he gets a chance to be better. But that's up to him to a degree at this point. Otherwise, don't be surprised if you hear Frazee chants from the Rock.
There will likely be additional changes. In the end of this Rich Chere post about the Frazee call up at NJ.com, Peter DeBoer stated that he's looking for some "fresh legs." The following quotes came from the freshest and most forgotten man on the roster, Peter Harrold. I'm not sure how he'll fit in and who he'll replace - please not Mark Fayne - but it's entirely possible. Stefan Matteau could get back into the lineup after being scratched for Tuesday's game. Though the Devils may want to have a look at their newest acquisition from the waiver wire: Tom Kostopoulos. Kostopoulos was acquired on Wednesday afternoon per Gulitti. He has never been a scorer or anything more than a bottom six winger. But he is a veteran with a right-handed shot who can play right wing and the Devils don't have too many of those. Just as importantly, he's better than Cam Janssen. I imagine that if he does play - and he could tonight - that he'll be on one of the bottom two lines, likely in Janssen's spot from Tuesday's game.
Still, the end goal remains the same: win. Just get out of this losing streak. I don't care how and I don't think you do either. I would love to see this team finally get some puck luck their way. I would love to see them do that while pounding Buffalo in possession. But if it takes post-regulation play or some lucky bounce or just an awful night from Buffalo, then I'll take it. I know that sounds desperate but when the team has lost their last six games and have went 1-6-2 in their last nine, then the desperation is warranted.
Will tonight be the night the Devils get that win? Can the Devils keep Vanek, Hodgson, and Pominville relatively quiet? How do you think they should attack Ryan Miller and the Buffalo defense? Who do you want to see in the lineup tonight? What do you think the Devils need to do other than the obvious to snap this losing streak? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. I'll see you there in Section 1; thank you for reading.