Throwbacks are big in sports. Because trying to create something new and good is difficult, why not go to the past for logos, jerseys, and apparel. Occasionally, a team will actually put out a performance representative of their own history. For the New Jersey Devils, they played a lot like last season's team against the Buffalo Sabres. They had the better of possession, they out-shot their opponents, and scoring goals was akin to squeezing blood from a stone. The major difference from last season's team was that the Devils won in the shootout, to make it an official 2-1 win over Buffalo.
I can understand some fans lamenting that the Devils needed extra time and a shootout to beat one of the worst hockey teams in recent memory. I can definitely understand anyone who groaned at the end of regulation that there would be more of this contest. I was one of those. Yet, this game was by no means anywhere the level of putridness that the Devils have displayed over the last few weeks. This game was miles ahead of, say, that game against Edmonton last Monday. For the first time since the previous game against Buffalo, the Devils actually out-shot their opponent. They put up 35 in 65 minutes, 31 in 60, and controlled more of the game than not. Given how bad the Devils' offense has been all season when it comes to just generating shots, this is a good thing. It also speaks to how abysmal the Sabres are in the neutral zone and on defense.
That said, I say I understand the laments because the Devils really could have done more with what Buffalo was giving them. Despite the large shot count, I felt the Devils were dumping, chipping, and chasing too much to get forward. Buffalo wasn't standing guys up at the blueline; the opportunities to carry or pass the puck in were there. The team certainly generated good shots to score, but they could have had so much more if they didn't lose the puck by way of an errant cross-ice pass or forcing a shot (or pass) through traffic. The Sabres tried to go for counter-attacks but didn't get too many; but they had enough to make Cory Schneider do some bailing out. But those turnovers killed advances that could have led to shots or better looks at Michal Neuvirth and the net.
Even with all of that, the Devils did not finish some glorious chances. I think that's the real root of any bad feelings about this game. There could and should have been a second (or third?) goal from the Devils; Tyler Ennis' shot off a faceoff aside. Right off the top of my head there was Jaromir Jagr passing the puck back to Scott Gomez in a 2-on-0 when he should've shot it; Jordin Tootoo was denied by the post right on Neuvirth's doorstep in the second period; Gomez got a gift of a rebound in front in the third but jammed it into Neuvirth's shorts; Adam Henrique got a penalty shot in the third period and blew it; and Eric Gelinas had not one, not two, but three opportunities to end the game in overtime and didn't get it done. There were probably more, but those were the ones that stuck out to me. I will be positive and point out that it's not common for the Devils to have this many chances to lament. And Neuvirth did play really well tonight. Yet, I get it because this was the template for a lot of games in 2013-14. I was surprised not to see #GoalsForCory trending on Twitter or something like that.
That being said, the Devils did not lose to the worst team in hockey. Gomez and Jacob Josefson beat Neuvirth cooly. Schneider denied Matt Moulson and Tyler Ennis. And that provided the difference that the 2013-14 team would've dreamed of. Overall, though, this was just an ugly game but not in the sense that both teams didn't try to make plays or the performances were stupidly bad. Both teams knew there wasn't much to play for. That said, the Devils did enjoy the better run of play for the first time in a long time and they got a result. In the desert of bad hockey performances, this was a small oasis of really warm water. I'll take it over a fifth straight winless game; even though I can understand it's not what you or I may have wanted to see. Alas, that's also not seemingly considered when someone unimaginative in management suggests a throwback of anything.
The Game Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The NHL.com Devils Time on Ice Charts | The Natural Stat Trick Corsi Charts | The War on Ice Game Stats
The Opposition Opinion: Please visit Die by the Blade for a Buffalo take on another non-win in 2015.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here are the highlights to tonight's game.
Remember the Truth: Believe it or not, I was actually pleased with how Eric Gelinas played tonight. He had some errors that were worthy of a facepalm, like missing a lead pass to a teammate ten feet away or losing the puck on a carry-in and leading to an odd man rush in OT. But for the most part, he wasn't a pylon in his own end. Peter Harrold had more of the troubles on that pairing as there were several times where he'd have the puck in his own end, he'd hesitate, and before he knew it, one to three Sabres converged on him to try to get it back. Gelinas was actually the less calamitous defender from what I saw tonight.
Moreover, #22 was featured on offense. He led the Devils with six shots, he got blocked four times, he missed the net twice, and he hit the post one of the lamer Devils' power plays of the night. He could have been the overtime hero, I don't know how he really missed that third chance. That said, for Gelinas to really add value, he needs to be able to attack. His best asset is his shot - even his wrister is hard - and it was on full display tonight. I'm not saying he needs to attempt twelve shots regularly, but he's got to have at least couple to be involved. He was quite involved, and I liked that.
The Return of Stephen: Stephen Gionta returned to the lineup tonight after being out since early December with a broken hand. He wasn't good. He looked a step behind on plays, he attempted no shots, and he didn't create much of any offense. It's somewhat understandable as it was his first game back. Given that his linemates, Jacob Josefson and Dainius Zubrus, were similarly possession-poor, it's possible this is just not a good combination. I'm willing to give Gionta the benefit of the doubt given that it was his first game and I'm hopeful that with some extra practice and minutes, he'll return to form. But it wasn't a good return tonight.
By the way, what in the world were the co-coaches thinking putting out the fourth line at the end of the game? Sure, they were rested. Namely because they played less than all of the other forwards at even strength for a reason. That reason being that Buffalo pinned them back on more of their shifts than the others. What happened? The Sabres pinned the Devils back and I had to hold my breath a bit hoping a stray bounce wouldn't be a heartbreaker for Cory Schneider.
Your Top Forwards Were Tops: It's difficult to identify which line was truly the second-most played, but the top forwards for New Jersey were generally good tonight aside from the lack of goal production. I'd like to run down a few of them:
Mike Cammalleri was hustling hard and firing away. Albeit mostly into Neuvirth's chest, but those shots are better than no shots. It's the sort of performance I want to see from Cammalleri. The goals will come from it. He took a silly retaliatory penalty in the second, but it didn't lead to much.
Jaromir Jagr is probably kicking himself for passing up that 2-on-0. And he probably wished he had some of those one-timers on the Devils' first power play back. But he was battling with Sabres - Zach Bogosian is a tough customer - for pucks, he was pushing for good plays, and he fired some good shots himself. I think some his passes were off, but I appreciate that he was motivated in spite of (or because of?) whatever trade rumors are out there.
Patrik Elias scored the Devils' lone goal in regulation tonight. He re-directed a shot-pass by Marek Zidlicky - who was actually pretty good on offense, nothing super-weird from him - to convert the Devils' first power play just before it ended. He also had two other shots and helped push the play forward for Adam Henrique (three shots) and Steve Bernier (two shots). I didn't like the high-stick he had on Girgensons in the third, but it doesn't undercut his mostly productive night.
Travis Zajac had a strong game in both ends. I do feel bad for him on the goal against. He won the faceoff in that he knocked the puck behind him. Unfortunately, Zegmus Girgensons won that puck by diving for it. Ennis picked it up and fired a shot that I think Schneider would've wanted back. That being said, Zajac was very good on the penalty kill and he was the Devils' best possession forward. I'd like to see how he and Cammalleri work with someone other than Tootoo at right wing.
That all said, I'm praising their performances from what I saw and understand after the game. Do I think this crew should've scored more than one measly goal? Yeah. Given that most of these players were downright invisible on offense or just bad recently, I'll admit that tonight's game painted them in a better light. But I don't agree that because Jagr blew it here or Cammalleri should've finished there, they stunk like the fourth line. They didn't.
More Than One Player Away: Bogosian played a lot of minutes tonight and he exterted himself on a lot of shifts. He will help the Sabres in the future. Neuvirth played very well; he was the Sabres' best player in the same sense Schneider has been the team's best player on a lot of nights. Girgensons, Ennis, and a couple of others really showed some signs of a bright future.
However, a lot of this Buffalo team just isn't good. The neutral zone was just a place for the Devils to either pick up loose pucks, win pucks, and go forward. The Sabres looked their best in the second period, and even there, they just didn't take what was given to them. It's always deflating when something like Cody Hodgson beating Jon Merrill to an icing and setting up Matt Ellis with a glorious opportunity only for Schneider to deny him. (Aside: That was Schneider's top save of the night.) But seriously, Brian Flynn, Marcus Foligno, Nicolas Deslauriers were just awful. The two rookie defensemen played like rookies. Matt Moulson seemed like a shell of his former Islander self. I saw a lot of Mike Weber along the boards, usually getting beaten for a puck or heavily pressured. Chris Stewart got a bunch of shots, but he
And most of all, the tactics were just plain bad. They were dumping the puck in on a routine basis like New Jersey did - even when they had guys open at the blueline for a carry-in or pass-in entry. If they got a stop on defense, they would throw pucks away like the Devils would do against a good team instead of pushing for a counter attack. They didn't cut off passing lanes to the Devils' pointmen. Their power play was just sad at times and most of their offensive strategy was seemingly to shoot for deflections. This is a team that's going to need more than a bunch of young guys to fix. That's what I learned from 65 minutes of Sabres hockey.
The Crowd Went Mild: Despite all of the shots, the atmosphere at the Rock was somewhat muted. The crowd was larger than I honestly expected for a game between these two teams. But outside of a chance or a goal, there just wasn't a lot of noise to be made. I'd like to think it's because everyone in the arena knew this was a meaningless game between a bad team and a historically-bad team. Short of the Devils dominating and scoring a lot of goals, the crowd wasn't going to get up for it unless something significant happened. That said, the loud cheer from the shootout win was pleasant, even if it was more out of relief (e.g. "We didn't lose to the Sabres! Yaaaay!").
Lastly: #GoalsForCory should be a thing again. I didn't like the GA to Ennis, but I have no real complaints about his performance as usual. I just wish he had some more goals to work with.
Your Take: I thought the Devils' performance was similar to the 2013-14 team, despite the fact that they won a shootout. Now it's your turn. What did you think of tonight's game? Are you pleased the Devils didn't lose to Buffalo? Are you more pleased that the Devils actually out-shot somebody and out-played them for a majority of the game? Did you get the same sense that the Devils could have done more on offense? What lessons should the Devils take out of this game before their back-to-back set with Vancouver and Carolina at the end of this week? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's win in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and followed @InLouWeTrust on Twitter. Thank you for reading.