Welcome to the second half of the season with this...game.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (14-20-7) vs. the Buffalo Sabres (14-23-3; SBN Blog: Die by the Blade)
The Last Devils Game: On Saturday night, the Devils hosted the Philadelphia Flyers. It was a glorious beat down of a performance as the Flyers were just awful and the home team made them suffer. Adam Henrique got a gift from Ray Emery and he got it to Jaromir Jagr for his and the game's first goal. Patrik Elias slid in a one-timer to a convert a first period power play to make it 2-0. In the dying seconds of the first period, Jagr got past Mark Streit and fired one past Emery. Emery was replaced by Steve Mason for the second period, but the goals didn't stop. Scott Gomez blasted one in off a 4-on-2 rush to make it 4-0. Jagr earned his first hat trick since 2006 when he put one in from in close to make it 5-0. The Devils cruised from that point on. Andrew MacDonald and Vincent Lecavalier scored consolation goals but there was never a real threat by the Flyers of making it a game. It was a great victory; my recap of the game is here.
The Last Sabres Game: The Sabres headed into Manhattan to take on the Rangers. The Rangers took them out. A penalty by Andrej Meszaroes yielded a power play goal by Derick Brassard. Cody Hodgson lipped off after that goal so the Rangers got another power play. And that was converted was by Chris Kreider. Kreider was hooked so there was another power play for New York. Rick Nash scored on that one. A little more than a minute later, Dan Boyle scored an even strength goal to make it 0-4 against Buffalo. The second period featured two quick goals: Carl Hagelin for New York and then Drew Stafford by Buffalo. But the game was simply over in any case. Jesper Fast tacked on a sixth goal to add to it. The Sabres lost 1-6. Andy Boron had this quick recap at Die by the Blade.
The Goal: Don't be stupid and go at the opposition. The Devils are a bad team. The Buffalo Sabres are even worse. I'm going to go into more detail in the rest of this preview, but know that this is a Sabres team that's been abysmal by both basic and advanced stats. This is also a Sabres team that not only lost their last four games, but lost them by scores of 2-5 to Ottawa, 1-5 to Tampa Bay, 0-2 to Florida, and 1-6 to Our Hated Rivals. Provided the Devils don't get too cute or play too loose, they should be able to find their spots and take advantage against a team that's been giving spots away all season long.
The Flu!: Mumps are bad, but flu is at least more understandable at this time of the season what with it being the winter and the weather, at least in New Jersey, changing and so forth. Tom Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice on Monday that both Martin Havlat and Eric Gelinas have the flu. That would explain their absence - Gelinas has missed the last few games - and it should mean they are out tonight.
However, there is a bit of good news. Jacob Josefson had the flu and he returned to practice on Monday, per Gulitti. From Gulitti's practice report, Josefson was switching off with Tim Sestito on the fourth line. In a way, I wouldn't be surprised if Josefson is not playing tonight because he is coming off the flu. On the other hand, I do not like seeing Tim Sestito play.
The Returns!: Josefson wasn't the only one returning to the team. Peter Harrold and Steve Bernier also practiced according to Gulitti. Harrold was struck in the face in the Montreal game and did not return. Bernier hit the boards hard and had to be helped off the ice last Wednesday. Seeing both of them back in action in less than a week is good news even if they are depth players.
I would expect Bernier to play as he was playing on an actual line whereas Harrold was an extra on defense. The latter would mean Mark Fraser and Seth Helgeson will play. The former, well, as much as I like seeing another right winger in the lineup, I don't think he's going to fit so well with Travis Zajac and Patrik Elias. Then again, I don't know if Michael Ryder would be really better. We'll see how it lasts.
As for the opposition, Chris Ryndak at the Sabres' website states that the Sabres are expecting to get Tyler Myers back on defense. The report also has their lines and pairings from Monday's practice.
The Goalies!: Cory Schneider will start in net, confirmed here by Gulitti and that news should surprise no one. Keith Kinkaid will likely get his next start later this week in the back-to-back. Chris Ryndak reported on the Sabres site that the starting goalie for Buffalo will be Jhonas Enroth. Enroth has a respectable even strength save percentage of 92.1%, though the penalty kill save percentage of 83.1% is a downer.
The Opponent is Abysmal! That even strength save percentage is respectable, but Enroth (and his backup Michal Neuvirth) has been facing a ton of shots. The Sabres have the league's highest shots against per game rate average of 35.7. Conversely, the Sabres have the league's lowest shots for per game rate average of 23.4 - even lower than New Jersey! Unsurprisingly, they are dead last in goals per game (1.78!) and goals against per game (3.38!). That tends to happen when a team gets out-shot by large margins on a seemingly regular basis.
As you may guess from those extreme values for shots for and against, the Sabres get regularly creamed in possession. Their team Corsi percentage at War on Ice is 37.6% at even strength. That's not a typo, the team gets out-attempted that much. At even strength only, they have a SF/60 of 22.4 and a SA/60 of 34.5, the lowest and highest rates respectively in the league. The Sabres are so bad in possession, again according to War on Ice, they only have three players above 40% Corsi at evens - the best man is Brian Gionta at 41.8% - and none of them are set to play tonight. The only solace is that no one has a really bad or good relative Corsi, but that's because every skater has been getting pinned back significantly over the course of a season. The Devils may not be possession studs like last season, but they should be feasting on the Sabres tonight.
If that wasn't enough, their special teams are also abysmal. Their shooting rates at special teams aren't the worst, but the conversion rates are frightfully bad. Their power play has the league's lowest conversion rate at 9%. Because they don't have the puck on their sticks all that often, they are near the bottom in power play opportunities too (28th with 111). On the penalty kill, well, believe it or not but a team that gives up 34+ shots per 60 minutes at evens hasn't been clamping down on their own end of the rink. They are just ahead of Philadelphia in terms of penalty killing success rate at 74.6%. They don't get penalized a lot like New Jersey, but they're above league median. So I'm not expecting the Devils to really falter in terms of special teams.
Quite frankly, this is a team that has a legitimate chance at Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. The Devils can try as they want, but I don't think they can be nearly as bad as the Sabres for forty games.
The Coach of Such a Bad Team!: Ted Nolan is in a weird spot. I suspect he was hired to really get the guys going, do as he wishes, and not have to worry about the results as the team stockpiled picks in the hopes of getting a lot of young talent in short order will make them better. Will Nolan be the coach to put that group together? I don't know. The fact that the team is the only one below 40% in Corsi suggests not. The fans at Die by the Blade have been discussing it month by month; here's their latest approval rating poll.
The All Star!: The NHL announced the first six all stars to participate in the 2015 All Star Game in Columbus. As it was based on a fan vote, a large part of the entire country of Latvia voted in Zemgus Girgensons. If there's an all star on Buffalo, he's probably a good choice as any. He leads the team with eleven goals, he's second to Tyler Ennis in points with twenty, and he's one of the few players shooting above 10% (14.3%, the other one that's apparently playing is Nicholas Deslauriers). So he's been a stand out of sorts. It also helps he's got a lot of support of his countrymen. Girgensons will center Buffalo's top line with Matt Moulson (7 goals, 10 assists) and Ennis (9 goals, 15 assists). That's pretty much their "power" line, since each player has at least 77 shots on net and each are one of the top four scorers of the team. (Drew Stafford is the fourth man.)
I would expect Andy Greene and Adam Larsson to see that unit a lot. I can hope that Scott Gomez's line gets them and Jaromir Jagr makes them suffer with the power of possession. I am personally hoping for an encore by Jagr after his awesome hat trick, but I'll take any productive contributions in a winning effort.
The Realization That You're Going to Spend Time And/Or Money For This Game!: Yaaaaaa-eeeehhhhh...hmm. Well, it's a Devils game. There's that.
Again, I stand by my notion that as long as the Devils don't play dumb, they should be able to get past the Sabres. This is a struggling opponent that has some hideous underlying numbers. This could be ugly. This could be a rout. As long as it's a win by New Jersey, take it. Because the Sabres may be not so against that happening.
Your Take: What do you think the Devils will need to do to beat Buffalo? Did you think Buffalo could really be this bad?