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Game Preview #31: New Jersey Devils at Buffalo Sabres

The New Jersey Devils will look to put Sunday's bad loss behind them when they play the Buffalo Sabres tonight. This game preview goes into who could come back for the Devils and who's who on the Sabres right now among other thoughts.

Could Adam Henrique return tonight?  Hopefully! (P.S. this photo is from the 2014-15 season.)
Could Adam Henrique return tonight? Hopefully! (P.S. this photo is from the 2014-15 season.)
Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Onto the next one.

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+2; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (15-11-4) at the Buffalo Sabres (13-15-3; SBN Blog: Die by the Blade)

The Last Devils Game: On Sunday evening, the Devils visited the New York Islanders.  They got run over by the Islanders, 0-4.  There's not much really to say about this one.  Marek Zidlicky scored the first and last goals; John Tavares got a re-direction in past Cory Schneider; and Matt Martin provided a second deflection on a Calvin de Haan shot that put the Isles up three and sent Schneider out for Keith Kinkaid.  The Devils responded with, well, nothing on the scoreboard.  My shorter than usual recap is here.

The Last Sabres Game: Last night, the Sabres visited Detroit.  After a scoreless first period, the Red Wings performed better in the second and opened the game's scoring. Brad Richards beat Johnson on a great one-timer and a 3-on-3 rush where no one really picked up Richards.  It looked like that would hold up as the Sabres struggled to beat Petr Mrazek.  But their persistence paid off with two quick goals late in the third period.  First, Ryan O'Reilly tipped in a shot by Sam Reinhart to get the equalizer.  Sixty one seconds later, Johan Larsson scored his first of the season when he was left all alone in the slot. The Red Wings had no answer for that and so the Sabres prevailed by a 2-1 score.  Check out Andy Boron's recap at Die by the Blade.

The Last Devils-Sabres Game: These two faced each other in Buffalo on October 24. The Devils went into it with a three game winning streak.  The home team went up 0-1 early when Tyler Ennis slotted in a power play goal.  Before the first period ended, though, Adam Henrique tied it up when he cleaned up a shot that took a bounce away from goalie Linus Ullmark.  Early in the second period, Ryan O'Reilly retook the lead for the Sabres with a goal.  But the Devils equalized minutes later with Mike Cammalleri putting home a short rebound created by Sergey Kalinin.  As the second period was in its final minute, Cammalleri set up David Schlemko with a great cross-ice pass. The defender moved towards the middle and beat Ullmark to make it a 3-2 lead. That lead extended to two goals when Henrique stole a puck on a PK, broke in on goal, and beat Ullmark with a backhand.   The Sabres had a lifeline when Jack Eichel converted a power play with 45 seconds left in regulation. But that would be it.  The Devils left Buffalo with a four game winning streak; Shane wrote the recap here. For the opposition's perspective, here's Zachary Zielonka's recap at Die by the Blade.

The Goal: Other than do everything better than Sunday night, the Devils need to be aware on special teams.  Buffalo went into their game against Detroit last night with the second best conversion rate in the league and tied for the third most power play goals in the league with 22. Nine of those 22 goals have come from Ryan O'Reilly (5) and Rasmus Ristolainin (4).  Those two are the team leaders by far in power play points on the Sabres.  Not that Cody Franson, Jamie McGinn, and especially Jack Eichel among others aren't contributing; but the points tell me that their great power play success runs through those two.  The Devils' penalty killers will have to make sure they don't get too many easy looks.  It's something they should have some tape on given that the Sabres put up two PPGs on the Devils back on October 24.  Though, it'd be more ideal that the Devils don't have to get on the PK to begin with, but that's asking for perfection.

On the flipside, the Devils should take full advantage of their man advantages. Plenty of other teams have done so. Whereas their power play success rate is relatively high, their penalty kill success rate is relatively low. Like bottom-five in the league low.  They went into the Detroit game with a 76% success rate, conceding eighteen goals out of 75 situations. The Sabres have done well to be among the most disciplined teams in hockey right now, but when a foul is called, they have got into trouble.  With the Devils still boasting a healthy Cammalleri and Kyle Palmieri, they should get opportunities to strike.  If the Devils can get more out of their power play and their penalty kill holds up, that should be a big help towards getting another win in Buffalo tonight.

Please, Please, Please: Tom Gulitti reported yesterday at Fire & Ice that Adam Henrique returned to practice and skated with Lee Stempniak and Mike Cammalleri, his usual linemates this season.  His lower body injury is still up in the air and he's hopeful he'll play tonight per this other post by Gulitti yesterday. It's not set in stone yet, but I'm crossing my fingers he's back in the lineup tonight.  Head coach John Hynes has used Henrique in all situations and he's been a key component of that line with Stempniak - who should be feeling even better tonight - and Cammalleri.  With all due respect to Jacob Josefson, but Henrique has helped make that line go.  His return would be welcomed.

Who's Out?: Not Andy Greene and Josefson.  While they didn't practice, Hynes confirmed they were just given the day off to rest up for today's game according to this post by Gulitti. Not Eric Gelinas.  He remained paired with David Schlemko on the third pairing in practice. Probably not Cory Schneider according to this post by Gulitti. I think that's right.  Schneider didn't give up anything soft in Brooklyn and I think he was pulled more to send a message to the rest of the team than to send a message to the goalie.  Schneider will be fine.  Probably at least Stefan Matteau will be out of the lineup as Brian O'Neill took his spot in Monday's practice. Someone else would have to sit for Henrique to play, too.  It could be Joseph Blandisi, as he was called up after Henrique got hurt.  With Henrique back, he's not really needed.  Blandisi was fine for what he was asked to do; we'll probably see him later this season if that's the case.

Not Tanking, But Not So Good: Those six words pretty much sum up the Sabres as I see it.  They're not looking to set new lows in CF%, though they're below 50%. They are at 48.5% prior to their game against Detroit last night per War on Ice.  Also according to War on Ice, luck and their goalies have not at all been on their side at even strength.  the Sabres are shooting at a rather low 5.3% at evens and their goalies have a save percentage of 91.7%.   Both are among the lowest in the NHL and it's a reason why their goal differential in 5-on-5 play, -16, was the worst in the league as of Monday.  It got a little better in their game against Detroit, so it may not be the worst but it's still rather low.  Even with a positive differential on special teams - their relative lack of shorthanded situations helps for that - it's still a net negative for the Sabres.  It partially explains why they're closer to the bottom of the Atlantic Division.  That said, it's still progress over the last two seasons.

The Sharpest: The most productive Sabres have been their top two power play scorers: O'Reilly and Ristolainen.  O'Reilly has eleven goals, seventeen assists, and 74 shots.  With an average ice time over twenty one minutes, the Devils are going to see a lot of him whether they want to or not.   Per Left Wing Lock, he's been centering Jamie McGinn and Sam Reinhart. They've been pretty decent so far in terms of production. O'Reilly alone makes them a threat.

Ristolainen has become the team leader in average ice time and Buffalo's top defenseman.  He'll run the power play and put up points, he'll put up points at evens (a total of seven goals, fifteen assists), and he plays a disciplined game (no penalty minutes!).  Per Left Wing Lock, he's been paired with Josh Gorges for a duo that will take on difficult competition.  The Henrique unit - assuming he's back - will likely see a lot of them.  They'll have to be careful on defense that Ristolainen doesn't completely command the blueline.  He's certainly capable and he's still so young.

While they haven't put up massive points, the Devils will have to be careful of their second line.  Evander Kane is a very talented forward with a tantalizing blend of strength, speed, and shots.  Kane is fourth on the team with 72 prior to Monday's game, only behind Ristolainen, O'Reilly, and Kane's linemate.  That's Jack Eichel.  While nine goals and five assists isn't exactly a rookie setting the league on fire (although it's definitely not too shabby), he's got 97 shots already.  That's an average of over three shots per game.  To put up an average like that in his first 31 NHL games is impressive and it means he's one to watch out for.  Not only tonight but for the next ten to fifteen years.   Joining Kane and Eichel is Matt Moulson, who's been firing his fair share of pucks (51 shots) and has only four goals to show for it.  Provided all three can fire plenty of dangerous shots, this could be a more threatening unit than the one O'Reilly is on.

The Sabres do have some interesting players as part of their bottom six, including Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, Marcus Foligno, Brian Gionta, and David Legwand.  Legwand and Gionta are the old veterans who can provide character, experience, and occasionally a good shift.  Larsson, Foligno, and Girgensons could be part of Buffalo's future, though their production hasn't been heartening.  They've been hurt by low shooting percentages or just low shooting (Foligno has 19 shots. Seriously.).  Combined with a defense where only Ristolainen is scoring - the other Sabres defensemen combined have six goals - and it's easy to see why the Sabres haven't lit it up as much as they should.  Perhaps they will in time.  For now, the Devils should be the most concerned with O'Reilly, Ristolainen, and Kane-Eichel-Moulson.

Dull Tending: Not that these are the worst save percentages in the league, but neither Linus Ullmark or Chad Johnson have been all that solid.  Just look at their save percentages by situation. They're each a bit below average at evens and much worse on the PK.  Johnson got the win last night so his could see a boost.  Since he did play, the Devils will likely get Ullmark again.  The Devils dropped four goals on him in his first meeting. They could do it again should they challenge him accordingly.  Get him moving and he becomes much easier to solve.

One Last Thought: I'd like to see more from Mike Cammalleri and Kyle Palmieri than they showed on Sunday. And earlier too.  If there's two people who just want to move on from that game, then it should be them.  Even with the possibility of a returning Henrique, those two remain key drivers for the team's offense.

Your Take: The Devils will take on another team who played last night.  Will they take advantage? Can the Devils avoid getting on the wrong side of special teams with the Sabres?  Who concerns you more: O'Reilly's line or Eichel's line?  Who on the Devils do you want to see have a big game tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments.  Thank you for reading.