The winning streak is at three. Can it be four? Or will the young stud and his crew wreck it?
The Time: 7:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (3-3-1) at the Buffalo Sabres (2-5-0; SBN Blog: Die by the Blade)
The Last Devils Game: It was a busy night for the scorekeeper on Thursday in Kanata, Ontario. The Devils visited Ottawa and plenty of lamplighters were made. Travis Zajac put home a rebound to convert an early 5-on-3 opportunity. Mike Zibanejad picked off a terrible decision by Eric Gelinas to get a breakaway shorthanded goal after that conversion. Then Jordin Tootoo scored on a feed from Adam Henrique not long before that second power play ended. The scoring went quiet, but the Sens used their speed to give the Devils issues and plenty of shots on Cory Schneider. The second period featured some good chances, but they conceded the equalizer to Ottawa's fourth line. A giveaway and bad positioning by Gelinas yielded Shane Prince passing it to Chris Neil in front and Zach Smith pounding in the rebound. Late in the second, Stephen Gionta speared Mark Boroweicki which gave the Devils five minutes straight to kill and an ejection for #11. Mike Hoffman would score early in the third as the Sens brought the pressure on that major PP. Chris Neil streaked in through the zone and finished a pass from Prince to make it 2-4. All hope appeared lost. Then Henrique put home a rebound past Andrew Hammond with under six minutes left to play. One penalty kill and some possession against later, Schneider was pulled for the final one hundred seconds. It paid off when Damon Severson blasted a shot through traffic. The puck stayed at Hammond's left pad and Lee Stempniak was able to take it and slam it in the net. There would be extra time after all. Overtime was fun but didn't provide an answer. The shootout did in the fourth frame when, yes, Lee Stempniak beat Hammond high with a lovely rising backhander. The Devils came from behind to win 5-4; my recap was jubilant, mostly for Mr. Stempniak's scores.
The Last Sabres Game: Yesterday, the Sabres hosted the undefeated Montreal Canadiens. It started off well enough, but it certainly didn't end well. The first period featured Dale Weise making it 0-1 in an even period in terms of shots. Brendan Gallagher made it 0-2 early in the second. Buffalo would have a response to that. Matt Moulson scored and Ryan O'Reilly converted a power play to tie it up. Then the bottom eventually fell out for goalie Chad Johnson and the Sabres. That fall amounted to five unanswered goals. Torrey Mitchell got it started about two minutes after O'Reilly's goal. Andrei Markov converted a late 5-on-3 power play to make it 2-4. In the third period, Gallagher converted the second power play after that 5-on-3 to make it 2-5. Past the midway mark of the third, Max Pacioretty made it a touch down. Weise, who started the scoring, converted the extra point so to speak to hand Buffalo a 2-7 loss. Yeah, Montreal is for real right now. Zachary Zielonka at Die by the Blade had this recap of the loss at Die by the Blade.
The Goal: Cut down on the self-inflicted wounds, whether it's fouls or giveaways. The Devils really could have lost Thursday's game easily. Gionta taking a spearing call was stupid and costly. Gelinas created two goals for the opposition. While the opposition didn't score on them, handing a fast team like Ottawa four other power plays plus the major just hurts the cause. Brian O'Neill's dumb boarding call could've ended the comeback effort. The Sabres aren't scrubs like last season. Sure, they're not quite so dangerous on the power play and the team went into their game against Montreal shooting at 3.7% in even strength play (thanks to War on Ice for that number). Still, handing any opponent over ten minutes with a man advantage and giving them pucks is just asking for pain. For the Devils to come away from Buffalo with a fourth straight win, they have to reduce them. I'm confident we won't see another spearing call. I'd like to think Gelinas will make a special point of being more careful with his decisions with the puck. But that doesn't mean the Devils can get away with as many errors as they did and hope they can make a two goal comeback in minutes. Especially since the Devils themselves aren't goal scoring machines.
Similar: Prior to that game against Montreal, here's some team stats at War on Ice. At even strength, the Devils have only four goals, they've allowed eight, they have a Corsi% of 48.4, their goaltenders have a save percentage of 93.7%, their shooting percentage is 3.1%, and their Corsi Per 60 (Corsi For/60 plus Corsi Against/60) is the lowest in the league at 83.2. Here are those same stats for the Sabres: five goals scored, nine allowed, a Corsi% of 51.7, a save percentage of 92.1%, a shooting percentage of 3.7%, and the second lowest Corsi Per 60 rate in the NHL at 92.7. The Sabres can feel better about their possession game, while the Devils can be happier with Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid. Still, both teams haven't been piling away a lot of goals at even strength and they're both low-event squads. It's early enough in the season that a game or two can make a big difference - that game against Montreal might skew these a bit. Yet, the larger point is that these two teams aren't that different in some regards.
The Stud: One of the biggest reasons why they are is Jack Eichel. The #2 man in the 2015 NHL Draft has displayed his tantalizing talent and special skills. While he's only got two goals, he's got eighteen shots and has averaged over nineteen minutes per game in his first six games of professional hockey. Last night in Montreal, he was skating with Tyler Ennis and Brian Gionta, and he just busts out great plays here and there. In time, they'll result in points and a lot of them. He's going to be something special, pay attention to #15 tonight.
Revamped: With Eichel coming in, the Sabres made some other big additions to their forwards. They acquired Evander Kane in a trade from Winnipeg last season and now he's healthy and active. Kane's got a great blend of speed, power, and puck handling to be a night-in, night-out offensive threat. The Sabres also obtained Ryan O'Reilly's services and gave him a lot of money for it. Those two alone bolster Buffalo's offense. While it hasn't yet come to fruition - Eichel just got tied for the team lead in goals with Matt Moulson and O'Reilly with a whopping two - it will in time as those are two players that can (and have) receive big minutes (O'Reilly is averaging over 21!) and come out ahead and productive in a season.
On top of that, the Sabres have decided to bring in Sam Reinhart. The 2014 second overall pick got nine games in 2014-15 before being sent back to junior. I don't know if he'll stick around now, but with a better support cast and a team not actively tanking, they may want to keep him. He's another young forward with plenty of potential of becoming a regular scorer. Should he begin to blossom, that's another weapon for a Sabres attack. Likewise if Zemgus Girgensons continues to grow as a player; he hasn't scored yet, but Moulson, Ennis (a sparkplug forward who fires a ton of shots, he's had 24 before the Montreal game in six games), and Gionta (what Ennis was once like) are more than capable of doing more than chipping in a few points. Already, I think it's a reason why the team's not getting wrecked in terms of shots or attempts. They have a positive CF% at evens and overall, they're averaging more shots than their letting up. They're on an upward path. Once the team shoots better than a woeful 3.7% at evens, their new looks at forward will look even better.
A Young One to Lead the D: No more Tyler Myers. Nikita Zadorov was dealt too. The 20-year old Rasmus Ristolainen is the one to run the blueline. He's the current leader in average ice time for the Sabres, he's playing tough minutes, and he's coming out well. As bad as last season was for the whole team, Ristolainen was productive then with twenty points in 78 games. With better forwards to support and plenty of minutes, he could get even more. The Devils' top six and special teams will see plenty of him tonight.
Supporting him is a motley crew of Josh Gorges, Mike Weber, Cody Franson, Mark Pysyk, and Jake McCabe. The latter two are younger players looking to establish themselves as regulars in the NHL. Franson is a pretty good defensemen in his own right and Gorges and Weber are serviceable. As a unit, the team went into Montreal conceding an average of 25.3 shots per game in six and they allowed the undefeated Canadiens less than 30. OK, the seven goals allowed isn't at all good, but it's not like they're getting shredded night after night. Better forwards and a better coach in Dan Bylsma has certainly helped. Still, it's so far, so good for the blueline.
Who's in Net?: With Robin Lehner on injured reserve, the Sabres goaltending tandem right now is Chad Johnson and Linus Ullmark. Johnson has been a backup for two different teams. With Lehner out, he's the one getting the minutes. With a 92.6% save percentage at evens prior to the Canadiens game, he's been pretty good. Though, Montreal has knocked that percentage down a peg with five even strength goals last night. Plus, his (and the team's) PK Sv% has just not been good. New Jersey should challenge him as much as they can. Ullmark is the team's sixth round pick from 2012 and has played with MoDo until this season. It's entirely possible he makes his NHL debut tonight given that Johnson played last night. I can't tell you much about Ullmark - again, this would be his first NHL game - but should the Devils get him, they should challenge him as much as they can. Whereas the forwards and defense has players with bright futures, I think goaltending would need an upgrade before Buffalo can really take that next step towards fighting for a playoff spot.
One Last Bit About the Opponents: Their PK has been blown up quite a bit. The Sabres have not taken a lot of penalties to get into shorthanded situations. Yet, they went into the Montreal game with a penalty kill success rate below 70% and the Canadiens went 2-for-3 on the PP last night. It's early enough in the season that the Sabres aren't dead last in success rate, but it's a sign of vulnerability. The Devils are coming off some kind of success with a man advantage in Ottawa: a 5-on-3 goal, a power play goal after that 5-on-3 goal, a 6-on-5 goal with the net empty. If they don't overthink it or do dumb things like go for dump-and-chase entries on a power play, then they may find a way to succeed should they get a power play.
$2,284.95: Gionta was fined the maximum amount he could be fined for his spear in the Ottawa game. He will not serve a suspension, so the Devils have twelve forwards going into Buffalo.
I don't anticipate anyone being called up, so I would expect the Devils to use the same lines as they did in Ottawa. That should bode well for Mike Cammalleri, who's been firing away and producing in the last two games. I hope it bodes better for Kyle Palmieri and Jiri Tlusty, even though Zajac has looked good. And the bottom six, well, I hope they don't cause too many issues.
Will He Sit?: Eric Gelinas was really bad against Ottawa, he created two goals against, and he was benched for a bit in the third period. Jon Merrill has been out from being ill on Sunday and he has been recovering since. He's the only extra skater on the roster, so if there's going to be a lineup change, then someone has to come out on defense. Given how bad Gelinas was, I would be more than fine with that switch. I'm not sure who else should really come out for him. I know David Schlemko is a popular choice among some fans, but he wasn't the one with two unofficial assists on Senators goals last night.
You Know Who Won't Sit?: Cory Schneider. Tom Gulitti did report at Fire & Ice on Friday that Schneider will start his fifth straight game. He faced a lot of shots plus a shootout in Ottawa. He's clearly in form; I just hope he doesn't have to deal with 39 shots plus four rounds of a shootout again.
Your Take: The Devils could be facing an angry Sabres team. And possibly a low-event style match-up come to fruition. What do you think will happen tonight? Will the Devils be able to handle Buffalo's new forwards? Will Merrill enter the lineup and will he come in for Gelinas? Can the Devils make it four wins in a row? Can it even be in regulation? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.