The first of six home games for NJ. Plenty of great seats are likely still available for this one.
The Time: 7:30 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - NBCSN; Radio - 660 AM &101.9 FM WFAN
The...Wait, What?: Yes, someone at NBC thought at some point that this game deserved a national audience. Want to be they're wishing they had a flex schedule to get out of this one?
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (21-26-9) vs. the Buffalo Sabres (16-37-3; SBN Blog: Die by the Blade)
The Last Devils Game: On Saturday night, the Devils completed a back-to-back set in Nashville. To say they started poorly would be a massive understatement. The Predators steamrolled the Devils in all three zones and put twenty shots on Cory Schneider. And these weren't weak ones that he saw clearly. There were odd man rushes, open shots in the slot (twice on the same shift!), and so forth. Matt Cullen was the only one to score amid the firestorm that burnt just about every Devils skater. The Devils managed to play a more even game in the second, limiting the number of times they got pinned back from not every shift to every once in a while. The Devils even got some offense and their power play resembled one. In fact, they tied it up when Eric Gelinas missed the net and Steve Bernier was in position to pile in the rebound past Pekka Rinne. Heading into the third, the Devils were just a bounce away from stealing something from the game. Alas, the Devils couldn't get one past Rinne and the Predators finally hit home on another strong possession shift. A tic-tac-toe play was finished by Colin Wilson to make it 1-2. Not long after it, Craig Smith went behind the net, past two Devils, and jammed in a puck in close for an insurance goal. The Devils would be beaten 1-3 by a more deserving Nashville team. My recap of the loss is here.
The Last Sabres Game: The Sabres hosted a Sunday matinee with Philadelphia in a game that was also on NBCSN. Seriously, is Buffalo that massive of a market in spite of all of the losing? Whatever. The first period was pretty much all Philadelphia as they outshot Buffalo 15-5. Matt Read got a goal amid all of those shots, specifically a deflection off a long, arcing shot by Wayne Simmonds. Yet, the Sabres put up a real fight in the second period. They tied it up when Nikita Zadorov blasted a slapshot to convert a 5-on-3 power play. Both teams tightened up for the third period as each side only had six shots. But Philly would have the one that broke through. Michael Raffl fooled the defense behind the net and Michal Neuvirth with a wraparound. That would be enough for yet another loss for Buffalo this season. Here's the recap by Andy Boron at Die by the Blade.
The Last Devils-Sabres Game: On January 6, the Devils hosted Buffalo. With that new coach smell and the stinkiness of the Sabres, the Devils were brilliant early on. They dominated the first period from a possession, passing, and production standpoint. Patrik Elias got his milestone night going with a re-direction of a shot by Mike Cammalleri. That would be the game's first goal and his 399th career goal. Before the halfway mark of the period, Jordin Tootoo unleashed a brilliant shot that just beat Jhonas Enroth like a laser. During a penalty kill, Elias sprung Travis Zajac for a breakaway that he finished. That made the game 3-0 and it was Elias' 600th career assist. Buffalo would put up more of an effort in the next two periods and got on the board in the second period. Mikhail Grigorenko hammered a shot on the power play to make it 3-1 to give the Sabres some life. But the Devils didn't just totally cruise and so the Sabres' uphill climb turned out to be too steep for them. Ted Nolan opted to pull his goalie with about four minutes left. It didn't work as Elias got the puck up to Zajac, who put it up to Jaromir Jagr for a game-icing empty netter. That secondary assist from Elias would be his 1,000th career point. It was a fun night for the Devils, a historic one for Elias, and 4-1 win in the standings. Here's my recap of the winning effort. For the opposition's side, here's Andy Boron's recap at Die by the Blade.
The Goal: Understand the fine line between confidence and arrogance. If the Devils are expecting to step on the ice and expect Buffalo to lie like a cheap rug, then they could very well lose this game. It's one thing to dominate a period; but unless that domination comes with a bunch of goals like the last Devils-Buffalo game, then there's no reason to cruise or just try to make a bunch of plays that the team has no real right of trying since basic passes tend to be a struggle this season. The Devils should be expected to win this one because Buffalo is so bad, they're historically bad from a possession standpoint. But they can provide a real challenge if any spells of domination only yield a goal or less and they get some motivation from it to make the game more even. Just like the Sabres against Philly on Sunday. Or like the Devils against the Predators on Saturday, to an extent.
Four Straight Losses? Change the Lines!: Well, there's not a whole lot the Devils can really do. They can't magically create Patrik Elias from 2000 or even 2012 and insert him into the lineup. They can move Elias to center, which was one of the many changes the Devils coaches made in practice as reported by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice. Elias was centering Adam Henrique and Steve Bernier. That move meant Travis Zajac was between Mike Cammalleri (good move!) and Jordin Tootoo (oh, we're still trying this experiment, why?). As for Mr. Trade Bait Jaromir Jagr, he was on the right wing of Scott Gomez and Tuomo Ruutu in what is a unit that shouldn't get any tough matchups whatsoever because watching them trying to defend may make me wince. The fourth line remains where Dainius Zubrus and Martin Havlat hang with Jacob Josefson. As Michael Ryder was rotated on a wing, I'm going to suspect he'll be a scratch again. I am not complaining about the scratch.
There may be one other made on gameday. Stephen Gionta took part in his first full practice since breaking his hand in December. According to Gulitti, Gionta may be a gameday decision. If he does return, then someone else has to come out. I sort-of fear it'll be Jacob Josefson as Gionta was rotating with him in practice. I write sort-of because it's not like Josefson is all that good anyhow. If not, then he should be a safe bet to return to action at the end of this week. Personally, I'll take a healthy Gionta over the fourth wingers at this point, which tells you how highly I regard Zubrus and Havlat.
Four Straight Losses? Change...Oh, No, Don't Change the Back End: As crummy as the defense was, the pairings the Devils have thrown out there are arguably the best they have. Adam Larsson and Andy Greene will continue to be somewhat-brighter spots than the rest of the blueline, which is easy considering the bottom four these days have been remarkably dull. Marek Zidlicky could do better, but one never knows what to expect from him as he does things his way. One also doesn't know whether Jon Merrill is progressing or not given his minutes. Eric Gelinas has done a great Kurtis Foster impersonation while his partner Peter Harrold has done a great impersonation of an AHLer in over his head. Unfortunately, the #7 spot is owned by Harrold's physical defenseman equivalent in Mark Fraser so there's no real change that would work. Gelinas-Zidlicky is a bad time waiting to happen. Zidlicky-Harrold is a bad time waiting to happen. Merrill-Gelinas is a bad time waiting to happen. I just hope they can play with their heads on straight, their heads up, and with something resembling communication with the forwards.
The true MVP of the team, Cory Schneider, will be in net again. Gulitti confirmed this on Monday at the end of this post at Fire & Ice. I have nothing bad to say about Schneider. I do give him my sympathies given the last few games. Hopefully, the eighteen guys who will play in front of him throughout the game can give him some comfort and peace of mind instead of getting owned by Buffalo. No repeats of the Edmonton game, please.
Historically Bad Possession: As shot blocks and misses were only recorded from 2005-06, the worst Corsi team over a regular season for a while were the 2007-08 Atlanta Thrashers with a dreadful 42.9%. Toronto managed to just get under that level of futility last season with a CF% of 42.8%. The 2014-15 Sabres could only wish of marks that high. They are currently at 37.1% per War on Ice.
What that means is that they have been destroyed on the regular. If you thought the Devils have been pounded over the last few months because they have been, then consider that the Sabres have had it worse for the entire season. Getting pinned back over and over not only means giving up a lot of shots - and by extension, goals - but it also means they're not able to attack. That's how this season has turned out for the Devils as they remain one of two teams with fewer than 2,000 shooting attempts at even strength. The Devils will hit that mark tonight as they only need 4. The other team is Buffalo, and they only have 1,775.
From actual average shots on net in all situations perspective, consider that the Devils are rather poor with 23.8 shots per game while conceding 30.8 per game. Look down on the list for each link The Sabres have averaged 22.8 per game and allowed 34.7 per game. Both of those values are the worst in the NHL this season in their respective categories.
No matter how you look at it, the Sabres have just been abysmal at keeping control of the puck and the game like we've seen in recent memory. They're having the game dictated to so much that it really isn't a surprise that they are losing the majority of those games. Only Buffalo has surprised with some massive losing streaks. This squad lost fourteen in a row, lost all of their games in January, went 2-1-0 in the first week of the month, and are back on a three game losing streak that could be much, much more before we know it. Why? Because they are that bad at possession. That's how all of this futility is possible.
It's also a big reason why the goal for the Devils is to not get over-confident. They should have some confidence by carrying pucks in, pushing for counter-attacks, and crash the net instead of the corners. Those spaces will likely be there; they just can't assume that they can do whatever they want and win. Instead, they just have to put in a full effort and the Devils should find what they found in their last meeting and so many other teams learned: the Sabres can be just that awful.
Throw in Some Bad Special Teams Too: The woes aren't just in 5-on-5 play. Oh, no. Buffalo's penalty kill has been dreadful with the second worst success rate in the league at 73.8%. After a quick look at War on Ice, their shots against per 60 rate is pretty high but not outrageous at 54.5. It's actually lower than New Jersey's. However, that stat combined with a team save percentage of 81.8%, one of the lowest in the league, means that being down a man is a bad time to be on Buffalo. The Sabres clearly do not have Cory Schneider in net. They clearly do not have a successful power play. The PPG Zadorov scored on Sunday pushed the Sabres' conversion rate to 29th in the league at 12.3%. They have a shooting rate just ahead of New Jersey's, which is still in the bottom three in the league at 43.7 shots per sixty minutes according to War on Ice. Unlike New Jersey, their team shooting percentage is 9.7%, which one of the league's lowest. Whatever few shots they generate with the man advantage often don't go in, which often makes power plays a respite from getting worked over at 5-on-5.
Unexceptional Goaltending: Buffalo could be described as a super (stupor?) powered version of the Devils in getting dominated in games. While the Devils have Schneider to thank for keeping it close, the Sabres haven't been so lucky. The team no longer has their de facto starter, Jhonas Enroth as he was moved to Dallas recently. Therefore, the expected starter tonight should be Michal Neuvirth. Neuvirth has a pretty good even strength save percentage of 92.7% this season. The problem is that he faces so, so many shots that the team needs him to be much, much better to be more competitive. Since Neuvirth isn't one of the best goalies in the world, that's not happening. Further, that 82% save percentage on penalty kills isn't pretty or good. That's also been a real sore spot.
What will add to the soreness is who the Sabres got in return for Enroth: Anders Lindbeck. He's big and not much else. His even strength save percentage of 88.3% is hideous even for limited action and he's never had an overall save percentage better than 91% since leaving Nashville, which was in 2012. My conclusion is that he's not all that good. Except for a Sabres team that is nakedly tanking 2014-15. If the Devils get lucky and get Lindbeck tonight, then the plan is simple: shoot everything you can at him. If Neuvirth is in net, then the offensive effort will have to work a little harder.
The New Guy...and Everyone Else: Buffalo moved Tyler Myers and his awful contract as part of the Evander Kane deal. The deal also included Zach Bogosian. He made his Buffalo debut on Sunday and was impressive, per Boron's recap at Die by the Blade. He played the most minutes on the roster right away, threw his weight around, and played a lot in his own end. He could be the guy to really help a defense that needs all the help it can get.
The problem is that one man can't do it all himself. Per War on Ice, Josh Gorges and Myers were generally given the toughest assignments with relatively more favorable zone starts and competition for the rest. Myers isn't around anymore and Gorges didn't play on Sunday due to a lower body injury. He could be out tonight according to this Buffalo News article by Amy Mortiz, which means tougher minutes for two young players (Rasmus Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov), two not-really-old veterans just making up the numbers (Andrej Meszaros and Mike Weber), and also a not-really-old veteran in Andre Benoit, who was partnered with Bogosian on Sunday according to Left Wing Lock. The young guys got a future but they're getting hammered. The vets aren't really providing much more than just being veterans, which as you all should know means not much on the ice - so they're getting hammered. Gorges and Myers were the only regulars negative in relative Corsi, but when nearly everyone is below 40% CF, a break-even in relative Corsi just means one pairing getting wrecked is getting replaced by two more getting wrecked.
I think Bogosian can ultimately be better than Myers, but there's a lot that has to happen for this defense to get anywhere near average. The Devils should be looking to attack from nearly every line. They should seek to apply some pressure, though not so much that they're caught out for counter-attacks. I'll say this: Ristolainen and Zadorov have really good shots so they should be on the lookout for them on offense beyond Bogosian.
What's Less Threatening Than a Pop-Gun Offense?: I don't know, but if you do, then that may the best descriptor of Buffalo's offense. They have a only two players who have more than ten goals this season and over a hundred shots on net. Those two players are Tyler Ennis at thirteen goals, eighteen assists, and 127 shots. The other is Latvian-voted All-Star Zemgus Girgensons, who has fourteen goals, twelve assists, and 104 shots. Per Left Wing Lock, they were used on the same line (with Chris Stewart) so by default, they represent the biggest threat to the Devils' defense. Ennis is very quick and Girgensons is a growing talent, so they can give the Devils and other teams fits if they have the space to do so. The problem is that they're usually playing in their own end of the rink like everyone else on the Sabres.
If you can believe it, the team with the lowest goals per game average (1.75!) in the league got worse. Their third leading scorer, Drew Stafford, was just moved to Winnipeg in the Kane deal. Kane can definitely help out next season, but he's recovering from surgery so the Sabres' tanking plans got an upgrade. This means an even weaker lineup at forward. Brian Gionta leads the regulars in possession with a 41.3% Corsi; he's been on a line with Matt Moulson and Torrey Mitchell. Moulson should break double digits in goals eventually (along with Stewart, being with Ennis and Girgensons helps him). Maybe not the other two, as Gionta only has four and Mitchell has three this season. That's the top six. Two guys with at least ten goals, two guys who should get at least ten goals by the end of the season, and that's it. Oh, and Ennis is the only guy with a realistic shot of cracking the forty point plateau this season.
If that's the top two lines, then who's left? A mix of guys with some potential and fourth-liners. Marcus Foligno, Nicolas Deslauries, and the recent call up of Johan Larsson may have futures beyond where they are. Though, Buffalo better hope that Foligno and Deslauriers don't continue to be prone to picking up PIMs that forces their crummy PK to go out on the ice. Larsson has a bright future, but not with the likes of Cody Hodgson and Matt Ellis. Ellis is just a guy and Hodgson is a guy who's having a real rough season (20 goals, 44 points last season; two goals and eight points in 52 games this season). Not exactly linemates that a young, bright forward can grow with. Mikhail Grigorenko would make this (or the top two lines) a bit more interesting, but he's been out recently. His return would be welcomed - and with a lot of time spent in his own end because no one on Buffalo can reliably push the play forward.
Essentially, if the Devils can handle Stewart-Ennis-Girgensons and/or just push everyone back, then they'll be fine for the most part. The Devils have had trouble even handling simple assignments at times this season, so it's not an easy thing to do.
Seriously, I Cannot Stress Enough How Bad Buffalo Is: This preview is much longer than usual because I need to establish to many Devils fans that the Sabres are a truly putrid team. No, the Devils aren't going to compete with this team for a better spot in the draft lottery. No, short of the Devils shooting Schneider out of a cannon and getting an amateur like me to coach, the Devils aren't going to be dropping fourteen games or getting anywhere close to the pathetic season Buffalo has had (intentions aside). No, while the Devils have been incredibly bad from a possession, production, and entertainment standpoint in these past weeks, it can totally be worse. The 2014-15 Sabres are living proof. In short, the Devils should beat this team. With some players either seeking or could be dealt within the next two weeks, some players (looking at you, Jaromir Jagr) should be extra pumped. But the whole team should end tonight by breaking a four game losing streak to a team that probably would want to lose four games (they would with a loss tonight).
Of course, I made a similar case about Edmonton and, well, that didn't happen. So, please don't make me look even dumber tonight, Devils.
Your Take: Well, you know plenty about what I think about this matchup. What's your take? Should the Devils beat this team? Should they be the dominant team for a change? And, seriously, what's up with this game being nationally broadcast? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading - especially if you actually read all of this.