January was a rough month for the New Jersey Devils but they ended it on a high note. The Devils snapped a four-game losing streak by snapping the Buffalo Sabres 3-1. It was a very solid effort by the Devils all game long with a dramatic ending. I’m generally pleased with how the Devils performed. They earned the win although it was nervy to watch in the final few minutes of the game. I want to describe that first as it explains why I’m pumped about this result beyond it being a streak-snapper.
The Devils were up 2-0 in the third period. With just under seven minutes left, Andy Greene is given an interference call for holding up Evan Rodrigues. It wasn’t so much that it wasn’t interference but it was the same sort of hold up that both teams were committing without issue all game long. Alas, it was called. With just four seconds left on the penalty kill, Ryan O’Reilly wins an offensive zone faceoff, the puck went right to Jake McCabe, McCabe just took a shot, and its found its way through traffic and past Keith Kinkaid. It was 2-1 with just over five minutes left in regulation. I don’t know about you, but I was concerned.
Thankfully, the Devils went right back to doing what they were doing for most of the game: attacking and making Buffalo work in their own end. The Devils initially caught the Sabres in a change and Pavel Zacha had a wide open lane for a shot. Robin Lehner denied him with the pad but the Devils kept on attacking for a bit. The Sabres were stout in their defense tonight; they were difficult to breakdown. But the Devils were able, in time, to get some attempts to go with their territorial advantage. Buffalo had all of one shooting attempt until the next call.
McCabe crushed Jesper Bratt along the sideboards in the neutral zone. Since Bratt had the puck, it wasn’t interference. But McCabe went back first into him and caught him in an awkward position. Nico Hischier saw that and he took exception. He gave McCabe a cross-check. That was called, a big scrum ensued, and at the end - #13 was in the box. I understood why the rookie did it but retaliation tends to be called and it was certainly retaliation. Now the Sabres have a power play with 2:45 left in a one-shot game. I was very concerned.
Fortunately, the Devils were able to survive. The Devils got an early clear to help take some time off the clock. The Sabres were able to set up and make several passes in their formation. With each pass, the crowd was growing more restless and I was growing more worried. Would this become the shot? Would that become the shot? Lehner left his net so the Sabres had six skaters. Eventually, Ryan O’Reilly tipped one in close. The rebound was loose and O’Reilly had a second chance. Kinkaid sprawled out and robbed the man of a goal. The puck stayed loose, and the Devils were able to fish it away and get it away. The Sabres tried to get back in, they did, Kyle Okposo missed on a shot, and before I knew it, the puck was at the points and Hischier was out of the box. Hischier got the puck away from Jack Eichel, the puck went free in the neutral zone, it bounced away from Hischier, Eichel put Hischier down, and so the Sabres were able to re-load.
But the Devils’ defense shined. They stopped the Sabres from getting in deep and won a puck. A clearing attempt by Palmieri didn’t work out. But John Moore was able to have a chance and he knocked it off the boards and out. Brian Boyle charged after it and looked to be free to the empty net - only for the puck to get in his skates for him to miss it. Marco Scandella now has the puck and is trying to skate the puck out on a breakout. Palmieri stripped him before he even left the zone. On the team’s third opportunity at the empty netter, Palmieri would not miss - and he didn’t. Palmieri made it 3-1. He, of all players, iced the game. Palmieri was pretty bad in those four straight losses. He played well and I can think of no one better to score that ENG. Of course, given the streak, I would have accepted an ENG from just about anyone in red, white, and black.
Of course, that ENG was not initially accepted. There was a delay and the referees were around the scorer’s table. That’s right, it was under review. How many times in the past thirteen games or so have a Devils goal go under review and ultimately have it be taken away? Three? Four? Five? Toronto wanted to make sure Boyle wasn’t offside because that somehow would have affected Palmieri stripping Scandella seconds later. Thankfully, the Devils would not be ripped off of another goal. It stood up. The win stands in the books.
Those final seven minutes of regulation could have undone a whole of very good hockey from the Devils tonight. Even between those two third period penalties, the Devils were very good at moving the puck, the passing was pretty good, they won plenty of pucks in the neutral zone and early on defense, they never gave up on the attack, and keeping the puck in Buffalo’s end. While the shot and attempt counts were not out of control in favor of New Jersey, the Devils really made the Sabres earn their salaries in their own end. To their credit, the Sabres were stingy and made the Devils work for their attempts and shots at what has been a hot Robin Lehner. These were not the Sabres that the Devils ran through back in October; they weren’t pushovers tonight. The Devils did rise to the occasion, they did start breaking Buffalo down more and more as the game went on, and they beat him twice. There’s a lot of good things about this performance even with the penalties and the dramatic ending.
Given the current slump, I half expected an equalizer from Buffalo. They got the late PPG conversion off a play that doesn’t have much fault and a penalty that was quite soft from the refs. They got a late power play and were able to make it a 6-on-4 for about half of it. The Sabres weren’t able to pin the Devils back quite a lot for most of the game, but they only needed one attack, one shift, and, really, just one good bounce or shot. I was concerned that something else would go wrong because that’s what happens during a losing streak, especially in a month where the team won only two other games. I was so happy to see the ENG to put the game out of doubt. I am happy that what I worried about didn’t happen.
Of course, the Devils need to build on this. The good news is that they played a legitimately good game to build on and they should feel good about the regulation win. Onward and upward into a crucial February, Devils.
The Opposition Opinion: From Die by the Blade, Chad DeDominicis has this short recap.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
Welcome Back, Hall: Taylor Hall returned to action after missing last week with a right thumb injury. He was missed big time. Tonight, he was a standout player. Hall, Nico Hischier, and Jesper Bratt were very, very good at going forward tonight. All three utilized their speed and puck skills to get into Buffalo’s end early and often tonight. They drew and did pretty well against Buffalo’s top line Eichel, Okposo, and Zemgus Girgensons. Less so against Sam Reinhart and O’Reilly, but Kinkaid made the extra stops. Overall, the Hischier line was positive in the run of play and when they were on the ice, the Devils took 20 of their 46 5-on-5 attempts on net tonight. Hall, in particular, was prolific at shooting the puck with five shots on net. He also scored what would be the eventual game winning goal, which was this lovely play off the rush.
That pass by Bratt was something the Devils were looking for and attempting all night long. There were a lot of passes across the offensive zone. That was partially due to Buffalo’s own coverage and partially due to get Lehner moving. Both were trying to find some space. They did so here - and this time, it worked very well. The Sabres were bunched up on the left side (Lehner’s left) of the ice, so Hall had acres of space on the right. Hall snapped a shot that went off Lehner’s glove and in to make it 2-0. It was the apex of what was a very good night by Hall. Welcome back, Superstar Left Winger.
My only criticism for Hall was his penalty in the first period. He shoved Okposo from behind into the corner in Buffalo’s end. It was reckless. It was dangerous. It was not and did not win him the puck. It was fully deserving of a boarding minor. It was dumb. Fortunately, Hall kept his cool for the rest of the game.
Welcome Back, Mueller: For the first time since November, Mirco Mueller suited up for the Devils. He suffered a broken collarbone and missed 31 games. He had a conditioning stint with Binghamton two weekends ago, he’s been practicing for a week, and he was activated today. In order to include him, the Devils went with eleven forwards (good night to double-shift Hall) and seven defensemen.
Mueller did pretty well from what I saw. He ended up playing 13:55, which is about a minute more than Will Butcher tonight. Mueller’s most common defense partners were Damon Severson, Andy Greene, and Sami Vatanen -in that order. Mueller played a quiet game, which is a good thing for a defenseman. He had one good shot in the first period. He wasn’t so much limited against a unit - the Devils were on the road - but he held his own against everyone on Buffalo. It was a solid effort from the man and the seven defensemen rotation was the right way to bring him back into the fold. It’ll be a tougher question as to whether to keep with it to keep him involved or to move someone out for him in a 12-and-6 set-up.
Welcome Back, Kinkaid: Kinkaid made his first appearance since getting injured in the game in Philadelphia on January 20. Kinkaid did quite well. Not that the Sabres were hitting him with a deluge of shots, he held his own when the shots did come. He was New Jersey’s best penalty killer. The only shot that beat him was something he didn’t fully see. Kinkaid’s glove was very good at catching long shots. His sprawled out save on O’Reilly, well, saved the game for New Jersey. It’s a shame it could not have been a shutout but that’s OK. Kinkaid put in a very good performance; it was definitely something good enough for the Devils to be competitive with. I’m happy that the team gave him a winning performance to go with it.
Welcome Back, Wood’s Hands & Palmieri’s Presence: While the line was just below 50% CF%, the unit of Pavel Zacha, Kyle Palmieri, and Miles Wood was quite effective tonight. For starters, when they were on the ice, the Devils out-shot the Sabres and were only out-attempted by a handful. For another, they created the game’s first goal. Palmieri actually tried hard in his own end of the rink and he was rewarded for some board-play in the second period. Amid pressure, he tossed out a perfect outlet pass to Will Butcher. Butcher saw Wood streaking up the far boards and gave him a near-perfectly weighted pass. It was enough to have collect it in stride so he can gain the zone and just torch Rasmus Ristolainen. Wood then proceeded to do this:
Hands! The man has hands! He didn’t just plow into Lehner or just take a direct shot. He made a deke. He made a move. It was beautiful and it broke the ice on the scoreboard. It’s something Wood should try to do more often when he does get into these one-on-one situations with goalies.
Both Wood and Palmieri ended up with four shots on net and a goal each. Both were able to get going on offense. While they did have to spend quite a bit of time on defense, they weren’t really exposed for dangerous chances or a bucketload of shots. It wasn’t like the defensemen or Kinkaid needed to play out of their minds when 44-37-21 was in their own end. It was a solid effort from them and ultimately a productive one. Hopefully, Zacha will get some scoring going soon (and maybe win a few more faceoffs) - at least he can feel good about playing well.
Welcome Back, Surprising Stat Involving Zajac: Zajac has been given a lot of criticism around here and I can’t say it’s not warranted. Tonight, he had a good game with Blake Coleman and Stefan Noesen. Zajac was an effective penalty killer. I also liked his defense in so much that he didn’t need to do much of it. I was stunned to find out that the Zajac line gave up zero shots on net in 5-on-5 play when they were on the ice. I’m serious. With Zajac and Coleman on the ice, the Devils out-shot the competition, 5-0. With Zajac and Noesen, it was 6-0. Their most common defensive pairing was Butcher, who was quite good tonight, and Ben Lovejoy and they saw no 5-on-5 shots against when they were with Zajac. That’s honestly impressive and good evidence that even the Zajac-centered line had a good game.
Welcome Back, Even Strength Dominance: OK, maybe welcome back isn’t so appropriate. It’s certainly welcome. Even when the Devils were struggling to take good shots and get good shooting lanes at Buffalo early in the game, the Devils established themselves well in the run of play. They did not get caught often with too many guys in deep on offense. They stood up for themselves in the neutral zone. They didn’t misfire on a lot of passes or concede a lot of possession easily. The result: 28 to 18 in even strength play. That’s a kind of dominance and it matches what was seen on the ice.
Sure, the attempts were more even, with the Devils up 46-42. But that speaks to how the Devils did in terms of keeping those shots from actually being shots. Per Natural Stat Trick, shots were 27 to 18 in 5-on-5 play; meaning the Sabres got nothing on Kinkaid with six skaters after the Hischier penalty ended. Assuming the heatmap is accurate, the Devils also did a much better job protecting their net than Buffalo in 5-on-5 even with Buffalo making a concerted effort to be more structured on defense.
My favorite part is that the attacking never really stopped for New Jersey in 5-on-5 play. Up one goal? They attacked. Up two goals? They attacked. Leading 2-1 on the road in the hopes of holding on? They attacked. They ended up out-shooting the Sabres in even strength play in every period. That they did it in the third period when Buffalo was trailing is enjoyable. I was pleased to see it live and I’m pleased to see it in the shot summary. Welcome back, this kind of play!
Not So Welcomes: The referees somehow did not have a foul to call on Buffalo. Given how soft Greene’s interference penalty was, I am surprised at that.
The penalty kill did the best they could. Out of four opportunities, they conceded ten shots against and one goal against. I don’t think PK did a bad job. The goal against was off a faceoff loss and the guy who lost it, Brian Boyle, only lost three others out of eleven total draws. It was one of those plays that just happens. I think Zacha, Hall, and Hischier should have avoided their calls.
There was an video review from Toronto for the Palmieri empty-net goal. They were checking for offsides. The goal was counted, thankfully. I would have been mad just on principle even if the Devils ended up winning 2-1 instead. I hate the offside challenge and I hope it goes away next season.
Month in Review?: Next Monday. This last game of the month is very nice. The rest: not so much.
One Last Thought: You know the game is going well when the opposition fans boo during a shift where you just dominate and do everything but score. Thanks to Hall, Hischier, and Bratt for doing so mid-way through the third period tonight. Should you do it again in the next few nights, they will be appropriately and deservedly cheered.
Your Take: The Devils played well - and won! The losing streak is over. What did you think of the Devils win? Who played the best in your eyes? Was any Devil actually bad tonight? What should the Devils take away from this game and apply to their gameplan for Philadelphia on Thursday night? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s win the comments.
Thanks to Ryan for his preview. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along with @AAtJerseyBlog on Twitter. Thank you for reading.