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Game Preview #80: New Jersey Devils vs. Buffalo Sabres

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The final week of the 2015-16 season for the New Jersey Devils features three home games. The first is against the Buffalo Sabres. This game preview goes into what's new with each team and who to look for on Buffalo.

Schlemko! McCabe! The last Tuesday night game of the 2015-16 Devils season! Tonight!
Schlemko! McCabe! The last Tuesday night game of the 2015-16 Devils season! Tonight!
Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Three to go.

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV – MSG+; Radio – 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (37-34-8) vs. the Buffalo Sabres (33-35-11; SBN Blog: Die by the Blade)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils went to Tampa Bay for their final road game of the season on this past Saturday.  The theme of the night were penalties as both teams combined for thirteen power plays.  The Devils put up two decent periods of effort. Sure, the Lightning had their shifts and moments of dominance, but the Devils hit back enough to be competitive.  While the Lightning went up first in the second period when Victor Hedman slid in a low shot from the slot, the Devils answered back.  On one of their many power plays, Adam Henrique managed to fire a rolling puck past Ben Bishop to tie up the game.  Then the third period happened and the Lightning crashed the Devils.  New Jersey took three minors and went over 13 minutes before registering a shot on net.  Tampa Bay took fifteen shots, six on those power plays, and two of which proved crucial.  Nikita Nesterov fired a long shot from the back of the zone. Cory Schneider, who returned to action tonight, stopped it but could not stop as Brian Boyle took the rebound, turned, and fired it into the net. The Devils tried to find a response but they could not.  Nikita Kucherov put home an empty net goal to seal the win for Tampa Bay. The Devils lost 1-3, my recap of the loss is here.

The Last Sabres Game: On this past Saturday, the Sabres went into Madison Square Garden to play the Rangers.  A win would mean the blueshirts would clinch the playoffs.  Buffalo had other ideas. Like putting up three goals on their first nine shots to stun the home crowd and send Henrik Lundqvist to the bench.  At about the ten minute mark, Ryan O’Reilly put home a shot to make it 1-0.  A few minutes later, O’Reilly struck again to make it 2-0.  46 seconds into the second period, Zemgus Girgensons beat Lundqvist to make it 3-0.   Not long after that, Kevin Hayes would score from the slot to get his team on the board.  The Sabres restored their three goal lead when Matt Moulson placed a backhander past Antti Raanta.  The Rangers would attempt a comeback starting from that point.  Late in the second, J.T. Miller cut the lead to two.  Before the five-minute mark, Derek Stepan got a tip of a shot by Chris Kreider to make it a one-goal game.  However, Chad Johnson of Buffalo stopped the other fifteen shots in the third period (Buffalo had five, so that suggests how the ice was tilted) to preserve that lead.  The Sabres spoiled the Rangers, 4-3.  Andy Boron at Die by the Blade has this recap of the game.

The Last Devils-Sabres Game: Back on December 15, 2015, the Devils went to upstate New York to play the Sabres.  The Devils got off to a pretty good start, far better than their previous game: a 0-4 loss to the Isles.  The Devils played a proactive game, although it wouldn’t be until late in the second period did it get rewarded.  Lee Stempniak got the game’s first goal when he was all alone in front of Linus Ullmark.  The goalie made a stop on a one-timer by Michael Cammalleri and Stempniak was at the right place at the right time with the right amount of space to make it 1-0.  Early in the third, a bounce off a skate left a puck loose for Jiri Tlusty.  He turned and hammered a slapshot past Ullmark to make it 2-0.  The Sabres proceeded to respond to these goals with offense, out-shooting the Devils 12-4 in the third.  Unfortunately for the Sabres, Cory Schneider was in net for New Jersey and he was in full control.  He stopped all of those shots plus the others from the first two periods.   The Devils prevailed 2-0 in Buffalo. My recap of the win is here. For the opposition’s perspective, here's this recap by Andy Boron at Die by the Blade.

The Goal: Put out a solid effort.  At this point, the real goal for these next three games is on the players.  Those who are looking for new deals and those planning to stick around in New Jersey still need to play like they still belong. Whether that's in John Hynes' system or even just in the National Hockey League.  Even players signed or expected to be signed for a long term have to leave a good final impression to show where they could be used in the following season.  It's not about the result anymore.  So focus on the process.

A Demotion on D: Seth Helgeson is certainly out.  Not only did he practice on the fourth defenseman pairing, but he was sent back to Albany yesterday afternoon.  Tom Gulitti - who we will all miss as he goes to - reported the demotion at Fire & Ice.  With Helgeson now in Albany, the Devils have seven healthy defensemen available.  That's certainly a compliment for Vojtech Mozik.  He's not just still with New Jersey, but he still practiced with John Moore yesterday according to Gulitti's practice report from Monday. That should mean he's in tonight and David Warsofsky is the seventh defender.  The goal most definitely applies to him.

Another Potential Return: The bigger news in practice is that Patrik Elias was not only there but on a line.  With Sergey Kalinin sick and Joseph Blandisi nursing a lower body injury (possibly from when he fell awkwardly on his leg during the Tampa Bay game?), Elias lined up with Jacob Josefson and Mike Sislo.  Given that the only other extra skater would be Tuomo Ruutu or Bobby Farnham (they swapped spots on the fourth line), it's entirely possible that Elias could play tonight.  Elias says he can play per this post by Gulitti. Gulitti's headline says it looks like it's coming soon.  I can't disagree.

As for the rest of the lineup, it appears to be the same as before with the exception of Blake Pietila going down to the fourth line.  I think that's fine for Pietila if the instruction is to go out there, throw some hits, and not get lit up. Given how defensively challenge the unit can be at times, maybe he'll help a little bit with that.  All the same, the offense - and defense - will largely go with the top six.

Does The Opponent Need This Game?: Not really. Buffalo has long since secured elimination from the playoff picture.  While a loss could theoretically help their potential draft position, they’re too far ahead to reach the bottom six teams in the NHL.  They’re five points clear of Calgary.  They got their big, young star in Jack Eichel. They got plenty of prospective players. They’ll get some more in the draft, nestled in the top ten.  A few wins to close out the season to further show that a brighter tomorrow is coming would be a good thing, but it’s not necessary.  Recently dunking on the Rangers in MSG is enough for the moment.

The Top Guys to Know: Here’s the statline for Jack Eichel’s rookie season: 78 games played, 23 goals, 29 assists, 22 PIM, 8 power play goals, 19 power play points, five game winning goals, one overtime goal, 231 shots on net, and an average ice time of 19:06.  Eichel is third on the team in shots, power play points, and average ice time among forwards.  Eichel is second on the team in points and shots on net.  Eichel leads the team in goals, game winning goals, and power play goals.  This is only his first season and he’s already an important part of Buffalo’s offense.  CF%?  Not so good, but he’s around the median of the team. All the same: Know him. Fear him.  If not now, then soon.

He didn't practice on Monday along with Buffalo's other top scorer, Ryan O'Reillyaccording to this article by Mike Harrington at the Buffalo News. O'Reilly apparently has an injury that could keep him out and lead to a potential call-up. That would benefit the Devils as he's Buffalo's top scorer with twenty goals and 38 assists. According to Left Wing Lock's line combinations from their last game, O'Reilly and Eichel center separate scoring lines.  O'Reilly has been with Zemgus Girgensons and Hudson Fasching.  Eichel has some better support from Sam Reinhart, who's had a fine first NHL season of his own, and Nicolas Deslauriers.  Buffalo's improvement is in part to the contributions by O'Reilly, Eichel living up to the hype, and Evander Kane (injured).  Depth still needs work.  None of those other forwards mentioned have more than twenty points other than Eichel and O'Reilly. All the same, O'Reilly being out means more pressure on Eichel - and allows Hynes to be more focused on that line when it comes to matching lines.

The Improving Risto: While Eichel and Reinhart represent the future up front, Risto Ristolainen has already become the leader of the Buffalo blueline.  Like many top defensemen, Ristolainen provides both points (9 goals! 31 assists! 198 shots on net!) and loads of ice times in difficult situations.  So while his CF% is deep in the red - like Adam Larsson and Andy Greene, to name two examples - he's going to be out there quite a lot and be a challenge for the Devils.   Expect to see Josh Gorges with him while the capable Zach Bogosian skates with Jake McCabe on a second pairing.  Again, depth could be better. The team defense could still stand to get that shots against per game average to go further below thirty. But Gorges and Bogosian are good, it's better than last year's relative sieve in the shot department, and the 21-year old Ristolainen is only going to become a force.

Competent Goaltending: In addition to improvements among the skaters, the goaltending has been much better in upstate New York. Look at the even strength save percentages among the Sabres goaltenders. Chad Johnson, likely tonight's starter; Robin Lehner; and Linus Ullmark are all at least 92.3% for the season.  No one is higher than 92.5%, but that's still progress over last season where it ranged from good to hideous. The point is that the Devils skaters will have to be smart with their shot selection and get into good positions for rebounds and/or shots themselves. It's not like they'll give up anything poor or have had a poor run of games lately.

Special Teams Issues: If there's an aspect of the game the Devils can exploit tonight, then it's when the game is not at 5-on-5.  The Sabres' power play has the lowest conversion rate in the league at 13.4% as well as the fewest power play goals with thirty, and the third fewest power play opportunities in the league.   The Devils should not hand their opponent a lot of power plays in general. I hope they learned that lesson from Saturday night.  Yet, it's not as if one or two will be the end of their evening. Especially if O'Reilly is not able to play tonight.

What's more tantalizing would be the Sabres' penalty kill. Their success rate is the lowest in the NHL at 75.1%. The number of times they've been shorthanded is above the league median, which isn't good when the success rate is low.  In terms of actual goals, they've allowed 64 power play goals which is the second most in the league.  This isn't to say the Devils' power play will take advantage. It's to say that it shouldn't be a surprise if they do if or when they get the opportunity.  Even without Joseph Blandisi trying to screen the goalie on a unit, that spot is not as difficult to replace. Provided Josefson can keep the puck moving with the point man and Kyle Palmieri can put his one-timer from the right circle on target, I think the PP can be fine.  Assuming their puck movement in general is on point and they don't do dumb things like, say, dumping the puck in.

Your Take: The Devils will wrap up their season with this week.  The organization calls this Fan Appreciation Week. A good performance is all I want out of the Devils, more so than a prize or a giveaway. But that's me. What about you? What do you expect from the Devils at this point? Who do you want to see play well?  What do you think of Buffalo? Are they on the right path to respectability?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.