Anyone who says the New Jersey Devils "played down" to the level of the Buffalo Sabres did not see this game. Did the Devils control a majority of the game? Absolutely. They out-attempted the Sabres 71-43 as the home team decided that possession with their zone exits was an entirely optional idea. Did the Devils try to score? Absolutely. They put 35 shots on net. Well more than Buffalo's 27. Did the Devils dictate the tempo of the game? Absolutely. Buffalo was constantly on their heels throughout the game save for penalties and a handful of surges. But hockey is a cruel game and - unfortunately - a great process doesn't guarantee goals or a win on a single night.
The Devils could only keep the Sabres at 2-2; a 1-0 lead turned into an early 1-2 deficit in the third and tied up later in the same period. The Devils attempted all kinds of plays to make it 3-2 only to be denied by something. Often times, it was Nathan Lieuwen. The young goaltender just happened to get into position; just get a piece of shots on some occasions and fighting the puck on others. But he made 33 saves, so he did his job. Buffalo skaters getting in the way in their own certainly was a common occurrence. The Devils were blocked 26 times. No one player stood out; just a lot of Devils with 2-3 attempts blocked. Good for possession, not so good when trying to score. I, for one, was hoping the game would break open in the second period. When Dainius Zubrus fired in a one-timer at the net when Zubrus, Michael Ryder, and Damien Brunner picked up one of many Lieuwen's rebounds, rotated around, and Ryder made a lethal pass across the middle. Finally, a goal. Finally, Buffalo's unorganized defense beaten cleanly and costly. Finally, a lead.
Buffalo got their goals in a quick burst in the third. Their offense came in surges followed by long lulls where they couldn't keep the puck for long when trying to get the puck out of their own end. One Devils attack went south early in the third. Jaromir Jagr lost the puck along the boards and the Sabres went up in a 3-on-2. Tyler Ennis got wide enough, the backchecking wasn't there in time, and Ennis fired it in on Cory Schneider's flank which made it 1-1. Shortly after the Devils escaped a heavy Buffalo attack (hint: that's a reason why Eric Gelinas wasn't seen for much of the third), Steve Bernier high-sticked Christen Ehrhoff while forechecking. After Travis Zajac got denied a deserved penalty or penalty shot, Cody Hodgson hit Ennis with a perfect saucer pass past the defense. Ennis was behind the skaters and put it in on Schneider's flank to make it 1-2.
Again, hope returned when Andy Greene put a shot that deflected off Tuomo Ruutu's stick to convert a later power play. It tied up the game and the Devils went back to work. Buffalo managed a few more shots, the Devils were blocked out more, but they were still dictating the game. But no goal would come. Overtime came. After a hectic first minute; the Devils really threw whatever they could forward to find that overtime winner. It didn't happen: not from Eric Gelinas, not from Jaromir Jagr (he couldn't buy a goal tonight), not from Travis Zajac, and not from Marek Zidlicky among others. The Devils did what they very well could to avoid this fate but they didn't: there had to be a shootout.
The Devils went into this game with a shootout record of 0-10 and one goal scored - and that goal scorer was demoted to Albany months ago. An amazing thing happened, though. Jacob Josefson scored the team's second shootout goal of the season - and they needed it. The Devils were shooting second and in a position to break the deadlock. There needed to be more than three rounds Drew Stafford got the fourth rounder, but Jaromir Jagr tid it up. Schneider made a save, but the Devils couldn't get that third goal. Just like in regulation. In round nine, Ville Leino took to the ice. Leino did very little that was positive tonight. He was picked on all game long. He doesn't even have a goal all season. He went in and scored. Mike Sislo - because nine rounds in, who else are you going to go with? - couldn't tie it. You can't make this up. You don't have to when it's reality. The Devils lost 2-3 in the shootout. The shootout makes it an official 2-3 loss to the Buffalo Sabres.
You can tell me the Devils couldn't solve a young goalie and a totally messy defense for more than two goals, a sadly common experience this season. You can tell me that it was awful to see them lose their eleventh shootout. Especially on the one night where they actually score not just one but two shootout goals. But let me preemptively condense the nonsense. They weren't giving away chances to Buffalo. They weren't playing slow or handing Buffalo opportunities left and right to attack. Anyone who has watched this season and last season should definitely know by now that playing well is a lot different than scoring goals. The Devils were not at all playing "down" to the Sabres tonight. So please do not insult my intelligence by trying to tell me otherwise. I'm already insulted enough by an 0-11 shootout record, the continued use of an inferior goalie getting starts throughout the season, and the constant frustration watching a team unable to get that go-ahead goal on so many nights this season and have a result slip away. The Devils did not fail to make the playoffs in consecutive nights because of this very loss alone; it was because of all of the other lost opportunities for results including this one.
The Opposition Opinion: Please go visit Die By The Blade for any Buffalo-based take.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here's the game highlight video:
Who Did Well for NJ? The Shorter List is Who Didn't: Well, given that they were in control of the game for the most part, nobody was really all that bad. The fourth line wasn't so hot; they were the only line to not come out way ahead in possession and shots (you know, that thing teams try to get to try and score). Bernier's penalty proved costly. Jacob Josefson also got a boarding call though it was kind of an iffy one. He also got a shootout goal so I'm not going to complain. But in general, the fourths didn't do much good. Not a big problem since, hey, they're the fourths.
Eric Gelinas had an odd one. I really liked how he was beyond the red line. Six shots on net, including two really impressive ones in overtime I thought he was going to finish. That's the offensive production that fans think he does every night or could if mean old DeBoer would just give him 18-20 minutes without questions. But it wasn't perfect. He had a nightmare shift. It happened after Ennis' first goal. Buffalo rushed up ice, Gelinas was able to get a clear, but he managed to show that while he's got a hard shot, he's prone to soft clearances. What ensued was a 1:41 shift where the Devils escaped luckily at 1-1. Despite his impressive willingness to attack and the Devils as a whole beating on Buffalo, he somehow managed to come out negative in attempts. But I am nitpicking at this point because so many Devils really pushed the game in the right away and did attack.
Poor Jagr & Zajac: They just couldn't buy a goal. The bounces, the pressure, the pivoting, but not the finish. Zajac was definitely fouled on a shorthanded breakaway and I'm still amazed there was no call. He got a free shot in the slot late in the third; only to be denied. I wanted to see them continue to produce after a massive game against Florida. It wasn't their night. Here's some more evidence for that notion. Each were on the ice for only two shots against at evens - and one of them was Ellis' first goal of the night.
Positives Now Smaller: Dainius Zubrus and Tuomo Ruutu got their first goals in quite some time. Good for them. I would've expected Ruutu's to come when Drew Stafford (I think) put a back pass way back to a surprised Ruutu coming on for a shift and got a gift of a breakaway. But at this point, take what you can get. Unfortunately, it may be for pride now.
He's in Buffalo Not Syracuse: Tyler Ennis will make a team a pay when he got open shots. He got two out of four with space and he scored. Sigh. No chance for Schneider on either. His shootout goal was a gaffe by Schneider as he got a piece of it instead of getting all of it. At least Josefson matched it and Schneider did better since the shootout progressed to the ninth round.
Regarding Shootout Selection: In order: Josefson, Brunner, Zidlicky, Jagr, Zajac (hit the post), Ruutu, Elias (stupid new move, who fakes a slapshot?), Henrique, Sislo. I don't think anyone really was missed there; it's a gamut of players.
Nailed: I felt the hope was dying out a few weeks back. If there was any hope, then I would have to think it died tonight. And it happened with a shootout. You're unhappy. I'm unhappy. It had to be like this and I don't even know what's appropriate to say.
Honestly, it's not that they lost to Buffalo. It's that they lost to Buffalo the same way they lost ten other shootouts and five other overtimes this season. Or even the several one-goal losses in regulation.
Your Take: I'm sure you have plenty to say. Maybe you're mad. Maybe you're frustrated. Maybe you want to say "I told you so." Whatever it is, have at it in the comments. Thanks to those who followed along in the comments in the Gamethread and followed @InLouWeTrust on Twitter. Thank you for reading.