Could we see a home crowd root for their team to fail? With only three points behind 28th and 29th, maybe!
The Time: 7:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 880 AM WCBS
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (30-29-11) at the Buffalo Sabres (20-43-7; SBN Blog: Die by the Blade)
The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday night, the Devils donned their jerseys from the 1980s and early-1990s and took on the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Devils showed signs of life early, but the Penguins created many scoring chances and more shots. Cory Schneider denied them all, bailing out his teammates at worst. In the second period, the Penguins and Devils weren't so sharp but it was an even period and far better for the home team. Schneider had to deal with plenty of pressure and he came up big. He also got a goal to work with when Jacob Josefson got sprung for an open shot on Thomas Greiss and beat him wonderfully. In the third period, it was pretty much all Penguins hockey as they tried whatever they could do to get an equalizer. The Devils put up a whopping three shots on Greiss in response as the Pens put up 13. Schneider was awesome and stopped them all for a very well-earned shutout. Adam Henrique sailed in a empty netter to seal the win at 2-0. My recap of the victory is here.
The Last Sabres Game: On the very same night, the Sabres visited Boston. The B's blasted the Sabres with shots and possession, out-shooting them 14-3 in the first period. Loui Eriksson scored when he got a gift of a bounce off the endboards to easily put it past Anders Lindbeck. However, Lindbeck got everything else and that would be the story of the night for Boston. They kept trying, trying, trying, and trying some more to get a second goal past Lindbeck. They just couldn't do it despite 44 additional shots on net. In the third period, Rasmus Ristolainen got a fortunate bounce off a skate and so his shot got past Niklas Svedberg. Buffalo nearly evened up Boston in shots in the third, but the 1-1 score held. A shootout was necessary and the hot Lindbeck remained hot. Tyler Ennis was the lone scorer and so Buffalo beat Boston 2-1 through the shootout. Andy Boron recapped the win with utter surprise at Die by the Blade.
The Last Devils-Sabres Game: Just over a month ago, the Devils hosted Buffalo. This was a game where the Devils out-shot, out-attempted, and out-played their opposition. However, there was a problem and his name was Michal Neuvirth. Patrik Elias re-directed a shot-pass by Marek Zidlicky to convert a power play in the first period and that would be it in regulation for Devils goals. The Sabres put up a fight in the second, but they wouldn't equalize until Tyler Ennis scored right off a dive at the puck off a faceoff loss by Zegmus Girgensons. The game was filled with shots, 35-25 in favor of New Jersey, and both goaltenders put on a show. A shootout was required for a game that reminded me of the 2013-14 Devils. Except the 2014-15 Devils actually won the shootout thanks to Scott Gomez, Jacob Josefson, and Cory Schneider. The Devils prevailed 2-1. My recap of the victory is here. For an opposition opinion, Andy Boron has this recap at Die by the Blade.
The Goal: Don't get frustrated, stick to the gameplan. The New Jersey Devils have been on the wrong end of possession and the shot count more often than not this season. The Sabres are an exception. After all, they're averaging over 35 shots against per game while putting up an average of over 23. They have been absolutely abysmal in possession with 36.9% Corsi per War on Ice. That said, hockey is played on the ice and on any given night, even a crummy team can do something right. Especially when their goaltender has been hot. While they only scored one goal in regulation in their last game against Buffalo, I would think a game plan similar to that one should work just fine tonight. It's imperative that they stick to it even if the goalie looks like he's stopping a lot. The Sabres will concede opportunities, the Devils just have to keep going after them to get a result.
Seriously, Just Go After Them: The Sabres concede an average of over 35 shots per game. None of their defensive pairings are so strong in positioning that they're just going to stand up the Devils over and over at the blueline. According to this article by John Vogl at the Buffalo News, it doesn't appear likely that Zach Bogosian will be in the lineup. All together, I don't think the Devils should have to constantly attempt a dump and chase against them. They may be able to find plenty of channels to carry and pass pucks into the zone when attacking. I fear that they will because, hey, that's what they do.
Backup Start: According to Tom Gulitti's report from Thursday's practice at Fire & Ice, the team will start Keith Kinkaid tonight. I think that's the right call. This is a back-to-back situation. There's nothing to gain from playing Cory Schneider on both nights. He put the team on his back on Tuesday, let him enjoy a night off before he has to do the same against the Islanders on Saturday night.
At Least There Won't Be 8-11-10: That numerical combination was the unit of Dainius Zubrus, Stephen Gionta, and Peter Harrold; a line that was put together specifically to match-up against Sidney Crosby's line on Tuesday night. It didn't go well. Based on Gulitti's report from practice, it appears Harrold was moved back down to the fourth line, meaning Michael Ryder and Martin Havlat were rotating alongside Gionta instead. This is good because, again, that Zubrus-Gionta-Harrold unit did very little good for the team. Hopefully it was enough to convince the co-coaches that, no, they are not a shutdown unit. With that switch, I expect Ryder to be back next to Gionta and Zubrus. Ryder did play the last two games and even picked up an assist on Tuesday, so I would think he'll get a third game. It's still a pretty sad bottom-six, but we've known this for a while now.
What is also sad is that Patrik Elias remains out with back spasms. The team's official Twitter account stated that he did not travel with the team and will not play tonight. While Elias was not the player he once was - definitely not when he was active and dealing with back spasms - I'd like to think he is still an asset to the team's group of forwards. As the season winds down, who knows if we'll see him again this season. Maybe next week? Maybe in the final week? Who knows.
Please Do Better: The rest of the lineup remains the same, so I'll make a few pleas for improvement. I'd like Adam Henrique to take a more active role on the ice. I want him to create offense, make plays on defense, and get some shots on net. I'd like Steve Bernier to just keep firing when he thinks he has a good chance to shoot. He (or anyone else) should almost never pass up shots in the slot. I'd like Mike Cammalleri to lead the way in terms of shots and attempts as he should. He's the team's most dangerous shooter; he needs to lead the way offensively. Likewise, I want Travis Zajac to support him better in the build-up and Jordin Tootoo to skate smartly so he's not in the way. Defensively, I'd like to see better from Damon Severson and Jon Merrill. While they didn't get good support at times, they were just on a different page at times against Pittsburgh. I'd like to see that just be an example of a bad night more than a sign of things to come. It would be to their and the team's benefit if that's the case, more so than the fact I just wrote how the possession stats suggest that pairing may actually be effective.
And the power play in general. This was horrid against Pittsburgh and many nights this season, it's either a feast for one advantage and a proverbial famine for the rest or just a proverbial famine. The Sabres are dead last in the league in terms of success rate and the number power play goals allowed. This is an area of the game the Devils should try to thrive in. It's a part of the game where the Devils should be able to find some offensive success, good shots on net and possession if not a goal. The team should keep it simple with their puck movement, no one should be attempting low-percentage passes that may hit a defender or miss their mark, and - again - there should be no dump-ins. A successful power play or two may be enough to really take hold on the game. I hope the players and the co-coaches can realize that with their actions on the ice.
When Goalies Get Hot: Michal Neuvirth posted an overall save percentage of 91.8% in 27 games with the Sabres, driven by a very good 93.1% save percentage at even strength. Tim Murray, general manager of the Sabres, felt he could have been traded for assets and so he was moved to Long Island. His replacement came from a trade with Dallas: Anders Lindbeck, who posted an inglorious 87.5% save percentage in ten appearances with the Stars this season. His career high in save percentage came with Nashville in his rookie season in 2010-11, a 91.5% in 22 games. If one ever doubted Buffalo tanking, well, that move erased it.
Or did it? Lindbeck came to Western New York and has been fabulous in net. In seven appearances, he's got an overall save percentage of 93.4%. That's driven by an astonishingly blazing 95.1% save percentage in even strength situations. The Sabres have been riding him recently. That 44-save performance over Boston on Tuesday was the second of a back-to-back set where he started in both games. Credit his goaltending coach, Arturs Irbe. Credit getting into a different environment. Credit that infamous "confidence" that players who are doing well get credited for having. Credit what you want. Either way, he has been hot. For that alone, he could provide a real challenge for New Jersey tonight just like Neuvirth did in February. Again, the Devils need to not let it get to them should that happen.
But those Sabres fans lamenting how the team is now going to be successful enough to catch fellow awful squads in Arizona and Edmonton should pump their breaks. Lindbeck may stay hot for a little while longer but we've seen this happen enough times elsewhere. Players cool and reality returns. The Sabres will still be a terrible team and lose more games. Besides, Lindbeck's impressive save percentage has yielded a 1-3-2 record over his seven appearances. It's not like his arrival has led to a sudden winning streak or anything like that.
The Sharpest Swords: While their numbers won't blow you away and several are out hurt, there are a number of skaters still active for the Sabres that the Devils should be careful when they're on the ice. Based on Left Wing Lock's lines from their last game, their first line suffices as a dangerous group. Tyler Ennis is Buffalo's leading scorer and shot taker with eighteen goals, twenty assists, and 157 shots on net. He is their top attacker, he's swift, and he's tenacious. The Devils can ill-afford to count him out. On his left side is Matt Moulson. You remember him as the guy scoring a lot of goals next to John Tavares. Not so here, as he only has ten goals on 134 shots. Still, he can power his way through bodies and his shot can still be hard. With Girgensons out, Johan Larsson - one of the Sabres' hopes for the future - has been given some time with Ennis and Moulson. Larsson is an X-factor in that regard, though he hasn't exactly lit it up with four goals and 28 shots in 27 games. Still, Ennis and Moulson are enough to justify getting Andy Greene and Adam Larsson out against them.
Other than that, well, there's not much. All other Sabres with ten or more goals are on another team or out hurt. Only two other Sabres on the team have over 100 shots on net this season: Cody Hodgson (102 shots, five goals, 66 games) and Brian Gionta (112 shots, seven goals, 57 games). There's just not a lot at forward that's really notable. On defense, well, there's the future hopes of Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov. Ristolainen has been playing a lot of minutes recently, over 28 in his last three games. He's not shy about shooting, given his 98 shots on net, so the Devils will get to see a lot of him tonight. Zadorov hasn't been playing nearly as many minutes as Ristolainen, but he's the leading scorer on the blueline with three goals and eleven assists. He's got a good shot from what I understand, he just needs to use it more. With the potential for ice time tonight, maybe he will.
I stressed in the preview to the last Devils-Sabres game that Buffalo is just that bad of a team. They still are, Lindbeck's hotness and recent win over a playoff-bound team aside.
Self-Promotion: It's not relevant to this game but it is for Saturday's game and the site in general. I've been asked to appear live on SiriusXM's Hockey Primetime with Conor McKenna. I will be talking about the Devils and trying my best not choke in the process. They'll be airing live from 5-7 PM EDT, my spot is at 6:30 PM.
RIP: The genius behind CapGeek and former Metro Halifax sports reporter, Matthew Wuest, died from colon cancer last night. On the behalf of ILWT, our condolences to the Wuest family, his friends, and his colleagues for this dear loss.
Your Take: The Devils will travel to Buffalo, where the Devils should come away with a result. Spare me the notion of "draft position," it's "the 2014-15 Sabres." What do you think will happen tonight? Will the Devils play better than they did against Pittsburgh? Can the power play be a thread? May we see a Devils team not try to dump and chase it. Can the Devils quell Ennis and Moulson without letting the rest do too much damage? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.