A home-and-home between two stingy squads? We’ll see if it plays out that way.
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (6-3-3) at the Buffalo Sabres (5-5-3; SBN Blog: Die by the Blade)
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Digital Audio Broadcast - The One Jersey Network; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted Carolina on Tuesday in a second half of a home-and-home set. The Devils took the first one in Carolina on Sunday. How would they fare? By the first period, it looked fantastic. The Devils put the Faulk-less Canes to the sword and forced Cam Ward to be great with 19 first period shots. P.A. Parenteau scored a beautiful top-shelf goal to make it 1-0 in that period. In the second period, it looked ugly as the Devils struggled to make zone exits on defense and the Canes managed to find their attack. They also found two goals. Jordan Staal finishing a great play by Jaccob Slavin during a power play. Klas Dhalbeck fired a long wrister that went by Jeff Skinner, who was in Cory Schneider’s way. 1-2 and it was not pretty. The third period, a somewhat happy medium as the Devils found their offense, Nick Lappin banged in a loose puck to tie it up for his first NHL goal, and the Canes provided a late scare. Overtime was necessary and it came with a few shots on both sides - all stopped. The Devils would then enter their first shootout of the season. Parenteau scored and Skinner was stopped. Jacob Josefson was stopped and Slavin was stopped. Taylor Hall then scored to not only add another mark to his growing list of Reasons Why We Love Taylor Hall, but also to give the Devils their first shootout win of the season. The Devils prevailed 3-2; my recap of the win is here.
The Last Sabres Game: On Wednesday, the Sabres hosted Ottawa. The Sabres got off to a good start, at least on the scoreboard. Nicholas Baptiste fired one into the net early in the first period off an offensive zone faceoff. It was nice. The lead did not last. Ryan Dzingel tied it up in the second period for Ottawa. The rest of regulation and overtime was all about the goaltenders. Mike Condon for Ottawa and Robin Lehner on Buffalo stopped everything else their opponents threw at them. There was no decision in sixty minutes. Another five would not provide one. Only a shootout would. While Sam Reinhart scored first, Kyle Turris matched him and Bobby Ryan made it 2-1 in the shootout. With a chance to keep Buffalo alive, Brian Gionta missed and so the 2-1 shootout score made it a 2-1 shootout loss for Buffalo. ScorpDigi has this recap of the loss here.
The Goal: Don’t panic under pressure. Ryan will probably tell me whether I’m off base or not, but the eye-test for this season has shown that the Devils really do struggle when the other team attempts to forecheck or stands resolute on breakouts. Some players absolutely do and throw pucks away that often remain the offensive zone or are collected by the opposition outside of it, where another attack begins. Ben Lovejoy immediately comes to mind as an example. In Tuesday’s game against Carolina, I noticed others trying to get away from the pressure of it by extra turns, moves towards the boards, or even risky passes in front of the net or across the slot. I saw even sure-handed players like Hall and Damon Severson pivot, spin, turn, and do all kinds of extra movements other than going forward or even getting the puck out of their end. I get that’s the point of the pressure; to force non-ideal plays. But a big reason why the Canes were able to get back in the game and get a lead on Tuesday was because of this pressure leading to zone exits not being made. That directly led to extra attack time, extra faceoffs after Schneider would freeze the puck, and, in one case, a penalty drawn in Carolina’s favor (they scored on it). So if the Devils want to have an easier time in their own end, they need to be more resolute against whatever off-the-puck pressure Buffalo may provide. They should be ready to have a “plan B.” Making ill-advised decisions become ill-advised for a reason; so the Devils should be ready to avoid that as much as possible.
Expect Goaltending: Well, duh, it’s a hockey game. Of course there will be goaltending. But what I mean is that the goaltending should be a featured matchup for this one. Andrew Gross reported at Fire & Ice on Friday that Keith Kinkaid will start tonight’s game and Cory Schneider will start Saturday’s game in Newark. While he has played all of two games, Kinkaid has only conceded two even strength goals out of 47 shots per NHL.com. He’s been very good. I don’t think any Devils fan should be worried that he is starting one of these games. Schneider is, of course, Schneider and has the numbers you’d expect from him.
What you may not know is that Buffalo has received excellent play from their goaltenders. They’re just ahead of the Devils in average goals allowed per game at 2.23. Per Gross’ post, Anders Nilsson will start this one and Robin Lehner will start tomorrow’s game. Nilsson, like Kinkaid, has only made a few appearances in this young season, but he has been excellent. Like Kinkaid, he has allowed only three even strength goals in three games per NHL.com. Lehner is Buffalo’s #1 goalie and he has a 93.4% even strength and 89.3% penalty kill save percentage in his ten appearances this season per NHL.com. He’s been fantastic, too.
This should be a home-and-home with plenty of great goaltender play. We’ll see who will score, which has been an issue for both teams.
Scoring is an Issue for Buffalo?: Yes. For the Sabres, they’ve come some ways from their tanking two seasons ago. There’s room for improvement. Buffalo is not a good possession team, but they’re far from the bottom. Corsica has them at 48.9% Corsi; that’s just outside of the bottom third. They’re below 50% shots for in 5-on-5 play, but at 49.49%, it’s not that bad. Their goaltenders have been superb. They’re one of the better disciplined teams in the league. Their special teams are in the middle-third in terms of success rates: PP, PK. But the Sabres just have not been able to light the lamp enough. Averaging less than 2.3 goals per game is usually great; but not when the team scores an average of only 2 goals per game. See, we Devils fans know what it is like to have everything go well but the goal and that leads to mixed results. So it has been for Buffalo.
A big reason why the Sabres have struggled to score is that they are not fully healthy. Their young star, Jack Eichel, has been out with a high-ankle sprain. He has returned to skate, but he is not close to returning to game-action per this post at WGRZ (warning: auto-playing video). The CBSSports.com list of injuries for Buffalo includes Zach Bogosian, Dmitry Kulikov, Ryan O’Reilly, Tyler Ennis, and Nicolas Deslauriers. This post by Amy Moritz at the Buffalo News has an update on each of them. Per the skater summary at NHL.com, Kulikov was averaging over 22 minutes on defense, Ennis was a sparkplug of sorts with 29 shots on net in 12 games, and O’Reilly was tied for the Sabres’ lead in scoring with four goals and four assists and absolutely leading them with 40 shots on net. That’s quite a lot of talent on the shelf. Not only are they not playing, but players that otherwise would not be in Buffalo or in lesser roles are pushed up. At least Evander Kane recently returned to the lineup, which should help.
Another big reason is just poor luck. Their shooting percentage in 5-on-5 play is as low as the Devils. Corsica has them at 6.12%. The Devils at least have taken more shots to alleviate that a little (and I do mean a little). But Buffalo’s scoring chance for rate is a robust 8.67. What that means is that the Sabres have at least been generating dangerous opportunities. In time, that should yield goals. And perhaps at about the same time a few of their currently-injured players - Eichel, O’Reilly and Kulikov are day to day at least - become available. At least the Sabres’ goaltenders have been fantastic to keep games close and give their team a chance to succeed. Something we Devils fans also know too well.
The Dangerous Ones: The Sabres still have a number of skaters worth keeping an eye on for this and tomorrow’s matchup. If Ryan O’Reilly is available to play, then he’s definitely one to watch. He has been the Sabres’ most prolific shot taker (40) to go with his four goals and four assists. One player who absolutely will play tonight is Kyle Okposo. He leads Buffalo with five goals, he has three assists to be tied with O’Reilly in points, and he has 31 shots on net. Okposo was Buffalo’s big acquisition in free agency in this past summer and he’s been a featured player for the team. The Devils will need to be prepared for a lot of him in a lot of situations.
The Devils will also need to be mindful of Sam Reinhart and Kane. Reinhart is in his second NHL season and he’s already a part of Buffalo’s top six. The 21-year old has plenty of talent and with Eichel, it’s easy to forget that he is a big part of their future as well. He has two goals, four assists, and 33 shots on net. It’s not clear what would be a reasonable shooting percentage for him, but I doubt it’s around 6%. Kane is not a young player, but he is in his second season with the Sabres. He has played one game, suffered a rib injury, and then returned in the game against Ottawa on Wednesday. While he only had twenty goals and fifteen assists last season, he was a shot machine with 271 shots on net. Once Kane is in form, one should expect plenty of shots from him. According to Left Wing Lock, Kane-Reinhart-Okposo was a unit against the Senators. We’ll see if that remains for tonight’s game. If so, then that’s the unit that John Hynes will try to match power-for-power or at least try to get Andy Greene and Damon Severson out against.
Behind that top line, the Devils will have to be aware of Brian Gionta, Johan Larsson, and Matt Moulson. They’re not on the same a line, but they are notable for their production on a team that lacks it. Gionta has 30 shots to go with his three goals and three assists. Larsson does not shoot the puck as much; I suspect he’s more of a distributor. Like Reinhart, he has two goals and four assists. Matt Moulson has 38 shots on net (second most on the team), one assist, and four goals. It is worth pointing out that all of those goals and his one assist came on Buffalo’s power play. He’ll be one the Devils want to pay attention to if/when they have to kill a penalty.
On defense, the main man for Buffalo is Rasmus Ristolainen. Ristolainen is only 22 but he is anchoring the blueline. He leads Buffalo defensemen and is tied with Okposo and O’Reilly with eight assists. He leads all Buffalo skaters with an average ice time of over 25 minutes. Ristolainen plays in all situations and generally plays well in them. Among all of their blueliners, he’s the most important one to pay attention to. I would think he’ll see a lot of Taylor Hall, Travis Zajac, and P.A. Parentreau. Left Wing Lock lists his most common partner in the Ottawa game was Kulikov. If he’s out (he didn’t practice yesterday per Moritz), then it remains to be seen who skates with him. I would like the Devils to try to put more pressure on the pairings behind him.
If you add Eichel, O’Reilly, Bogosian, Kulikov, and Ennis back to this group, then Buffalo looks more formidable on paper. And once the percentages are a little better and assuming the goaltending remains great, then the Sabres will suddenly look a lot more decent. Fortunately for the Devils, they will get them twice when they’re not at full strength now.
Nearly Full Strength: Gross reported on Friday at Fire & Ice that while Jon Merrill and Luke Gazdic practiced with the team, they will not travel with them. That’s significant news in of itself. Merrill has not been all that impressive in past seasons. After several weeks of Kyle Quincey, John Moore, and Ben Lovejoy having issues in their own end, I’d like to think he’ll push some of these defenders to play better. We’ll see, but it won’t be tonight. Gazdic, well, he’s an “energy” player that really has no use now. Especially since a fourth line of Sergey Kalinin, Vernon Fiddler, and Nick Lappin had a good performance against Carolina. The sort of performance that did not make you miss players like Gazdic. Still, they have been the two injured players on the Devils and both should be close to being active soon. Both are still on IR for now.
According to Gross’ report, the Devils are keeping the same lines and I would suspect the same pairings from Tuesday’s game. I’m looking forward to Hall-Zajac-Parenteau building off a great Tuesday night. I’m hopeful that the Henrique and Josefson lines play better. And I’d like to see Yohann Auvitu receive more minutes than he did against Carolina. That he practiced on a power play unit in place of Moore - who was used on Tuesday - gives me confidence that he will.
The Devils Annual Food Drive: It’s on this Saturday. Don’t forget to bring food to donate if you’re going to the game.
Your Take: The Devils begin a home-and-home set with the Sabres, so how tonight goes will inform how they play in Newark on Saturday. How do you think tonight’s game in Buffalo will go? Will the Devils be able to crack Buffalo’s goaltending? Can the Devils keep the Sabres from scoring a lot, something they have not really done this season? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.