Over the course of any kind of season, a team will welcome contributions from all kinds of players. The top scorer. The defenseman who makes a lot of plays in one end, but not often on defense. The secondary scorer. And on some nights, the fourth-line "energy" player who just hasn't scored in a while. Steve Bernier hasn't been used like a fourth liner as he's been with Scott Gomez and Adam Henrique for several weeks now. Yet, his style is best suited for a depth role. Moreover, Bernier hasn't scored since scoring the lone goal on Valentine's Day at Nashville. Tonight, he helped make the difference as he scored two goals for the New Jersey Devils in their 3-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres.
Bernier's goals set the tone in what was a lackluster game prior to the scores. Both teams played with a brisk tempo and managed to mess up all kinds of passes and decisions. It kept the game loose but it kept one team from taking over. That changed after Scott Gomez beat Tyson Strachan to a loose puck in the neutral zone. As three Sabres focused on Gomez taking the puck up ice, Steve Bernier charged directly to the net. Gomez made an excellent pass around Andre Benoit and Bernier stopped at right time to one-time the pass past Anders Lindbeck, who had no chance at the shot. It was an excellent play created by Gomez; it was as much his goal as it was Bernier's. The Devils kept up the attack and Bernier struck again. Adam Henrique tried to find Bernier coming around the net. He missed, Lindbeck knocked it softly in front of him, and Bernier sensed the puck was near. He just turned, attempted to whack the puck around Benoit, and it beat Lindbeck low. Bernier's decision paid off big. With that, it was 2-0.
The game took on new meaning. The Buffalo Sabres may be a historically bad team in some regard, but no one can say they didn't put in an effort. They played to the score and so they were applying plenty of pressure on the Devils. The Devils' defensive effort was porous at times, to help that effort. There were several cases where a Sabre - be it Johan Larsson, Marcus Foligno, or Brian Gionta - was able to get the puck right in front of the net for an open shot. Keith Kinkaid had to be very good tonight as he stopped all of those shots - Larsson was robbed by the glove, Kinkaid's best save - and more tonight.
Fortunately, the Devils realized early in the third period that they needed to at least keep the Sabres honest. They got a big bounce in their way when Jordin Tootoo blocked a shot by Mike Weber off a defensive zone faceoff. The block put the puck in a place where Tootoo could go at it. He tried to breakaway, Weber caught up, and then Tootoo got past him as he headed towards the net. He beat Lindbeck cleanly for a highlight reel-worthy goal. And from that point, the Devils just took the opportunities that they had, be it a 3-on-2 rush or just a standard breakout. Buffalo would get on the board to keep things interesting. Matt Moulson tapped in a puck after Kinkaid dove to deny a rebound attempt by Tyler Ennis to convert a power play. It gave the Sabres a reason to keep trying. Kinkaid continued to deny them and a late power play for New Jersey just allowed them to play it out for the win. Alas, Bernier would not get a hat trick.
All told, this was a rather high-event game for the Devils and what's more is that was fairly even. Given that the Devils were up as much as 2-0, 3-0, and 3-1 for most of it, that's actually laudable. In all situations, the Devils were only out-attempted 53-55 and out-shot 27-29. At even strength, attempts and shots were 45-47 and 22-24, respectively. That's evidence that the Devils didn't sit on a lead or essentially lean on Kinkaid for long stretches at a time. It's also evidence that Buffalo and New Jersey played a competitive game, which was something of note considering how sloppy the first period looked.
Let's go back to Bernier. After having more anonymous games than not over the past few weeks, I will admit that I think his contributions made him stand out to me more than usual. He was more than just the scorer of two goals that gave the Devils a lead they would not give up. He put up four shots on net, tied for the team lead. He missed on two other attempts, but six shooting attempts from Bernier is a lot from him. He played 13:07 at even strength and he was an asset. Gomez, Henrique, and Bernier was the team's best unit from a possession standpoint as well as a production standpoint tonight. When they were out there, the play often went forward which was not a coincidence. Bernier was very good on the puck and at winning pucks to keep plays alive. As well as Kinkaid played and as sweet as Tootoo's goal was, I think Bernier was the star of the game. It may not happen again for a while, but it's worth appreciating all the same. After all, it led the Devils to a win as this season winds down.
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 Log | The Natural Stat Trick Corsi Charts | The War on Ice Game Stats
The Opposition Opinion: Check out Die by the Blade for an opposition opinion about this game.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here's a lot of nice saves by Kinkaid, two goals by Bernier, and one really sweet one by Tootoo.
Three Men, Fifteen Shots: Fifteen of the Sabres' twenty nine shots on net came from three players. They were arguably Buffalo's best players tonight. Before delving into the Devils' performance, I want to focus on them.
Brian Gionta had five shots on net. One of them created a big rebound opportunity for Tyler Ennis, that led to Moulson tapping in a power play goal in the third period. But his shots gave Kinkaid plenty to deal with as the former Devil shot hard as he was known for.
Rasmus Ristolainen had five shots on net. Most were from distance, but it provided flashes to those like me unfamiliar with him that he's going to be a key player for the Sabres one day. He led their blueline in ice time and did mostly well with his match-ups.
Johan Larsson - unrelated to Adam Larsson - was just a pain for the Devils tonight. He also had a goal waved off after review in the first period, but that was because he kicked it into the net. That would not be the only time the Devils had to deal with this other Larsson tonight. He had five shots, with three right in the slot provided I recalled them all correctly. Kinkaid totally robbed him with the glove in the second period, again, easily Kinkaid's most impressive save tonight. He jammed the puck right in front where he was only touched after the shot was covered/ He had to make a quick pad stop on a shot assisted by a turnover by Jon Merrill. I'll admit to not being concerned with him in the preview. During the game, I was convinced he was the best Larsson on the ice - and ultimately, one of Buffalo's best players.
As with Gionta and Ristolainen, it wasn't just that Larsson got five shots on net and that's a high number for a single game. It showed that he made very good reads to get open, he didn't hesitate or over-think when he had an opportunity to shoot, and he was in positions to force Kinkaid to be great. That speaks to how well he played and how his linemates supported those players. They were the standouts on a Sabres team that acquitted themselves well even when down 2-0 or 3-0. Again, they are an abysmal team, but they played a competitive game tonight.
Soft Defense: It also speaks to how the Devils' defensive effort was lackluster. While the shot count wasn't heavily slanted and attempt differential was close to even, there's a huge difference between 29 shots with a handful of close shots and 29 shots with several shots coming from open players in the middle of the zone. Adam Larsson and Andy Greene did the best, but even they had some shifts where they were chasing the play. Larsson was particularly varied with some nondescript defending on one shift to some important interventions made elsewhere.
I'd take that over the rest. Jon Merrill provided more extremes in terms of quality of play. Solid on one shift, too loose on the puck and unaware without it on the next. Damon Severson didn't look so hot next to him, though Merrill was the more contentious. The pairing of Mark Fraser and Eric Gelinas was, well, as expected not good in their own end. Gelinas was able to get four shots on net, which is good for him as his shot is his best asset. Covering players, on the other hand, not so much. His multiple whiffs on a loose puck that somehow denied a potential easy goal for Buffalo in the second will remain on blooper reels. I will say this, I trust Gelinas more in odd man situations than Mark Fraser, whose lack of speed makes his decision making more of an issue. Buffalo definitely played well enough, but the defensemen weren't doing Kinkaid too many favors. Especially with all four penalties coming from attempts at playing defense; not that any of them stopped the fouled Sabre from taking a shot on net or something like that.
Depleted Forwards: Defensive efforts take more than just defensemen. Some forwards - like the Gomez line - did well. The rest, not as well. Mike Cammalleri was sick so he was a late scratch. Martin Havlat was his replacement. While Cammalleri is an decent enough defender, Havlat taking his spot is a downgrade - no matter how much you rate Travis Zajac. I didn't think Zajac was all that good but like Larsson, it's preferable to seeing the fourth line run around getting pinned by Buffalo's fourth line (Read that again, Buffalo's fourth line), Havlat and Michael Ryder trying to put in token efforts on defense, and Stephen Gionta trying to get it done at both ends. An active Cammalleri could've helped out in spots, for sure.
That all said, I'm heartened that a Devils forward group missing one of the their top goal scorers and shooters was able to attack as much as they did. Havlat nearly opened up the game's score early with a hard shot that struck iron hard. Havlat looked OK on offense for someone who hasn't played in a while. Even the Gionta unit got something going with Ryder showing flashes of imposing his will on the game as opposed to waiting until something comes to him. I've gone at length about Bernier, but Henrique and Gomez were moving the puck well to create those opportunities. In general, I appreciated how the Devils didn't just dump away potential odd-man rushes and offensive movements. They kept the Sabres honest when they had the lead and it helped prevent the end from just being time to lean on Kinkaid. It was a far cry from a first period where they didn't create much. While their second power play was really just to kill the clock, I liked how they moved on it. Ultimately, I was pleased with the offensive play beyond the first period overall even if their help on defense sometimes left a lot to be desired.
I Repeat: Kinkaid was really good tonight. That he was able to come into the net after not playing for almost two weeks and have this kind of performance should further the notion that he's a viable backup goaltender. He nearly got caught trying to play the puck a bit too much, but it didn't lead to any significant danger so it's not a big deal.
Ow: Stephen Gionta got sprung for a one-on-one with Lindbeck in the second period. Lindbeck denied the five-hole attempt. Gionta just lost control and crashed hard into the boards. He left the game for a bit, but he would return to the game and played 15:51. He's certainly tough. I thought he'd be out for longer.
Quick Turnaround: The Devils will host the Islanders on Saturday. They'll have to sharpen up quite a bit, particularly their defensive effort from this one.
Lastly: Anders Lindbeck came into this game with a massive 44-save-out-of-45-shot performance in a shootout win over Boston on Tuesday. He came into Buffalo and posted a save percentage above 93% in seven appearances. With Bernier's second goal and Tootoo's goal, I think it's safe to say that his hot streak has cooled.
Your Take: The Devils won 3-1, they kept their opponents honest, Kinkaid played well, and the Devils got goals from two unlikely sources in Bernier and Tootoo. It was contentious at times, but the result was achieved. What did you think of the Devils' performance? Would you agree that the defense could have been better tonight? How did you react when you saw Tootoo score his goal? What should the Devils take from this game before playing the Islanders on Saturday night? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the win in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and followed @InLouWeTrust on Twitter. Thank you for reading.
P.S. I've mentioned this recently and I'll do so again. I'm going to be live on Hockey Primetime on SiriusXM with Conor McKenna at 6:30 PM tomorrow, likely to talk Devils hockey. So please tune in.