In a game filled with goals, hits, action, and a few odd occurrences, the New Jersey Devils fell to the Buffalo Sabres, 4-6, in their first game of the 2018 Prospect Challenge. It was a very entertaining and fast pre-preseason game. The home fans - the Challenge is based in the Harborcenter in Buffalo - were sent home happy and the Devils put up a fight all the way through.
The Buffalo Sabres have one of the best prospect systems in the NHL and it was easy to see why tonight. Their roster for the 2018 Prospect Challenge featured many of their name players in their pipeline: Rasmus Dahlin, Casey Mittelstadt, Rasmus Asplund, and Victor Olofsson. Add in Tage Thompson, who played in the NHL for half of last season, on top of several other solid picks and developing players and that’s a tough group on paper. On the ice, they were mostly a better team from start to finish. Their passes were better. Their puck control was better. They committed fewer and less costly turnovers. They appeared to have more attack time than New Jersey. They definitely had more odd-man rushes and breakaways. Their special teams were better. Most importantly, their best players on paper were the best players on the ice.
As much as I hate to rely on the eye test, it was clear to anyone with two working eyes that Buffalo has some NHL-ready players. While both teams had mostly AHL-level rosters, this only made the Sabres’ best stand out even more. This may have been a pre-preseason game, but I think we will see some of these players in Buffalo blue and gold against New Jersey later this year. Dahlin definitely will. Mittelstadt and Thompson better. Asplund and Olofsson should as well. And even some of the “lesser” names like William Borgen may get some longer looks in training camp if they keep up their game from this one.
The Devils put up an effort and really made the game interesting by responding quickly to the Sabres’ first four goals. The Devils never led in the game, but the Sabres only led in the third period for more than a couple minutes at a time. Scoring went 0-1, 1-1, intermission, 1-2, 2-2, 2-3, 2-4, 3-4, and 4-4. Both teams’ coaching staffs will not have a lot of nice things to say about the defensive performance in front of the net. Unfortunately for New Jersey, Buffalo went up in the third and never really looked back. They battled but it was not enough.
Before I get into the details of the game, I would like to express my disappointment with the New Jersey Devils organization and the Buffalo Sabres organization. Last year, the Prospect Challenge was easily able to be followed online through a video stream. This year, the Devils did not stream this game and if the Devils Insiders are correct, they will not stream tomorrow’s game against Pittsburgh or the Monday morning game against Boston. In fact, the Devils only hosted Buffalo’s stream - which had blackout restrictions. What were these restrictions? I have no clue. There were fans in New Jersey who could not see this game. There were fans way outside of New Jersey and New York who could not see this game. I imagine where also fans in New York who could not see this game either. These are prospect exhibition games. They were not on TV at all! How in the world can anyone justify a blackout restriction for these games? Especially when there were not any last year.
Yet, the Devils and the Sabres have been hyping up the Prospect Challenge on social media and on their sites. As this is the first real set of hockey games for both teams since April 2018, people were excited. You can’t hype up an event and then throw it to a stream that not everyone can see for no rhyme or reason and also having no news about the other two is a big disappointment. I hate the [Current Year] argument, but it rings true here: It’s 2018, show the games. Nobody wants to follow a Devils’ employee feed to know what is happening with players we want to see! I hope the Devils can correct matters by their 3:30 PM game against Pittsburgh and the Sabres can drop their stupid, stupid, stupid blackout restriction.
Now that I’m done ranting, let’s talk about the game.
The Story of the Game: The Sabres took control early on with the Devils struggling to establish offensive pressure or puck control. But they would get their licks in here and there. They also did a good job initially to deny Buffalo from a great chance or a great look. Mackenzie Blackwood looked solid early on as well.
The scoring opened up with a miscue by Colton White. A puck popped up towards the slot. While off-balance, White tried to palm it away. He missed and tried to pass it to Xavier Bernard - and missed wildly. Matej Pekar beat Bernard to the sideboards and moved the puck to the corner. There, Kevin Hancock flung a pass to the circle to an open Cole Coskey. Coskey threaded in a one-timer to the near post for the game’s first goal. Not a bad goal to allow, but a bad decision by White that created the play.
A little later, the Devils had a power play situation thanks to Rasmus Dahlin taking a holding call. It was one of the very few mistakes he made tonight. Brett Seney led a break out, gained the zone, and left a drop pass for Yaran Sharangovich. As Seney wheeled around to get to the net, Sharangovich made a pass to Joey Anderson entering the slot. Anderson did not cleanly knock it forward but got enough of it for Seney to get the puck. While skating across, Seney took a touch, and tucked in a backhander past Johan Johansson for a goal before he was taken down. It was very nice finish by the speedy winger. Here’s a clip by the Devils Insiders:
Brett Seney with the rush from his own end and then gets right to the front of the net to SCORE as he gets railed.— Devils Insiders (@DevilsInsiders) September 7, 2018
Neat feed by Yegor Sharangovich too. Joey Anderson did enough to push the puck through the slot as well.#NJDevils pic.twitter.com/DRBn8tGVVj
In the second period, things got crazy.
First, Mitchell Hoelscher took a penalty for tripping on a forecheck if I recall correctly. The Devils withstood the pressure of the Sabres’ power play. With seconds left on it, Buffalo would convert. Rasmus Asplund made a great cross-ice pass to Victor Olofsson. Olofsson hammered a one-timer from the right circle to the top left corner to make it 1-2. His release is fast and he’s going to be a nightmare for opposing defenders and goalies. @NJviDs had a clip of this and others all night long:
Second later, the Devils hit back. A long shot by Xavier Bernard is deflected on net by Marian Studenic. The puck hit iron. Studenic tried to put home the rebound; he couldn’t finish. Amid bodies in front and a bouncing puck, Nathan Bastian swooped in to roof in an equalizer. Devils Insiders had a clip of this as well:
Nathan Bastian keeps the play going at the blue line.— Devils Insiders (@DevilsInsiders) September 8, 2018
Xavier Bernard shovels a shot through. Heck of a deflection by Marian Studenic to get it in a danger area.
Bastian cleans it up to tie the game!#NJDevils pic.twitter.com/LevAdISV33
Minutes pass and Oskari Laaksonen gets a slashing call for knocking Blake Speers’ stick out of his hands. The power play would not go well for New Jersey. Asplund would deny a pass back to John Quenneville and get the puck behind him. Asplund got ahead of Quenneville and Ty Smith had to race back to catch him. Smith did so but Asplund kept the puck away from both Devils with his reach. He used said reach to move the puck across to an open Alexander Nylander. All alone in front of Blackwood, he stashed in a shorthanded goal to make it 2-3.
Shortly after that, Rasmus Dahlin scored his first goal in a Sabres uniform in an exhibition game. By the left dot, he fired a wrist shot that seemingly hit off a Devils skate (Jeremey Groleau?), the right post, and into the net. Kind of a fluke and a 2-4 deficit.
Seconds after that goal, the Devils get an even bigger fluke. On an attack, Studenic guided a puck to White at the left point. White fired a shot that found it’s way off the post and then hit off Johansson’s back to drop into the net. That made it 3-4. Here’s the clip from the Devils Insiders:
On the very next shift - the very next shift - the Sabres completely lose their coverage and pay the price. The Devils won the faceoff at center ice, Speers carried the puck into the zone, put it wide to Fabian Zetterlund along the boards, and Zetterlund played it forward for Speers. Speers touched it off for (I think) Gignac, who passed it back to an open Zetterlund by the slot. Zetterlund one-timed the puck past johansson to make it 4-4! Just minutes after Nylander’s shorty!
The action continued throughout the second period only without the scoring. Blackwood was called on to make some tough saves and the Devils spent a little more time in Buffalo’s end compared to the first period. The most hectic being a 2-on-1 shorthanded rush by Buffalo shortly after a Devils power play began. This led to the net being knocked off its pegs - and the refs let play continue! The Devils won the puck and just kept going. No call, no stoppage for the net, and they just let it go. Not that the Devils did much with that. It was weird. And this was after a Sabres penalty wiped out a power play leaving four seconds of 4-on-4 hockey before Speers left the box, where was serving a holding penalty for failing to hug Nylander on a forecheck. The Devils held on, killing a penalty by the end of the period, to the 4-4 score.
Alas, the third period was the end of the comebacks. After strangely starting the period in their own end instead of center ice (the Sabres’ broadcast was thrown off by it), the Sabres started exerting their level talent. Dahlin, Thompson, Mittelstadt, and Asplund really steppd up and the Devils had no answers. Dahlin hammered in a long rebound past Blackwood’s right flank to make it 4-5. That play began with Dahlin winning the puck in the neutral zone; it ended with him blowing by everyone to be uncovered for a long put-back off the left wing. Later, during a Devils power play, a pass back by Gignac hit off someone and went into no man’s land in the neutral zone. Thompson won the race to the puck - White had no chance - and he scored on the ensuing breakaway goal. That made it 4-6. Despite some efforts, the Sabres never really stopped attacking, they were smarter on the puck and in defending Devils’ approaches, and they consistently had a man in their slot to clear out trouble late in the game. In other words, the Sabres clamped down on that lead and would not give up yet another equalizer.
Overall, the Devils’ performance was not too bad but it also was not too good. Again, the Sabres were better in execution while also arguably having the more talented players. The Devils seemingly had more players take falls, lose pucks, and just not execute on plays that could have saved them some anguish. I do give them credit for hitting back as much as they did. They were not afraid to be physical or play fast. They never really gave up in the game. They drew fouls almost as they much as they took them. They made Johansson work a bit after a slow start.
Devils I Noticed: I struggle to say that any Devil had a really good game throughout all three periods. Nobody in red and white had that Bratt-style night where they were just one of the best on the ice.
- If I were to say that anyone was the best, then I would argue it being Brett Seney. His power play goal was impressive for how he was able to get that backhander off while taking a hit. The game being fast and physical suited to his strengths. I better understand why he’s a real prospect to keep an eye out for.
- In spots, I saw flashes of Sharangovich putting in good work. Sometimes, I thought I was seeing Zetterlund only to see 57 and not 59. He kept things moving. He centered Bastian and Studenic and I thought he stood out among them even though Bastian had a goal. I think the Binghamton faithful will have a player they will like in him.
- Among the defensemen, well, I cannot say anyone played really well. Among them, I thought Ty Smith was the best. If only because he responded better to pressure than the others (looking at you, Josh Jacobs). He was most notable in the third period as he was taking more initiative - even had a good end-to-end rush. He was relatively quiet before then, which is not a bad thing with respect to defensemen. He did what he could on Asplund; I don’t think Nylander’s goal was his fault. I will say that trying to get around Thompson at his own blueline was a nearly-costly error as the future-NHLer stripped him and nearly made it 4-7 on his own.
- I was disappointed with the top line of Michael McLeod, Joey Anderson, and John Quenneville. They did not make much of an impact on offense. There were some good shifts individually from McLeod and Anderson, but as a unit and as a whole, they were quiet. It could be a result of often going up against Buffalo’s best, but they needed to be better on the puck than they were. Especially Quenneville. He was struggling on puck control and he made some passes that went to nobody that I thought were just odd. For someone as “experienced” at this as Quenneville, I expect more from him. It was the first pre-preseason game, so maybe it was just a bad night.
- I felt bad for Blackwood. I know he gave up six but it is not like he gave up a bad one. OK, the long rebound that Dahlin put home looked bad; but so did the no-defense on Dahlin. I thought he was left out to dry more often than not. He definitely was on the two shorties. Amazingly, it could have been worse as Blackwood did rob Mittelstadt and Thompson a couple of times.
- Blake Speers, man, you can’t just hug a guy on a forecheck.
- This is not so much a player, but an aspect. The coaches were Mark Dennehy and his staff; they will be coaching Binghamton in 2018-19. This makes sense as most of the Devils’ roster at the Challenge is going to consist of B-Devils. If these games are any indication, then Binghamton fans should expect to see a 1-3-1 power play formation with four forwards and one defenseman (White was one of them, Smith was the other). They should also expect to see a triangle plus one on the PK. They should also expect to see a forechecker commonly used. From my untrained eyes, it is not too dissimilar to how New Jersey played last year. We’ll see later on whether Dennehy keeps any of those or makes some changes.
Sabres I Noticed: I might as well highlight the Sabres, who stood out in their victory. I don’t think some of these players are going to the A in a few weeks.
- Rasmus Dahlin was a commanding force on the ice tonight. He made smart plays, little plays that became big plays, and finished the night with two goals. The first was a fluke; the second was not. He may have an assist too; but even if not, he was noticeable throughout the night. Thing was that on every shift, he was just smoother, faster, more composed, and more controlling than the Devils. He can go end-to-end, he can find his teammate, and he can jump in and out of an attack easily while maintaining his defensive coverage. He’s a NHL defenseman now. He could be a really good one really soon.
- Thompson really exerted his strength as the night went on. He’s the most experienced player in the game and it showed - especially in the third period. He was able to keep plays moving, look for others for killer players, and took initiative at the right time to succeed. His shorthanded goal showed off his speed. His stripping of Smith showed his hands. His reads were apparent when he found Mittelstadt a couple of times for wide-open breakaways that Blackwood just denied (one time with his mask!). I do not know if he truly belongs in this kind of tourney - he did play in 41 games last season with St. Louis - but he was a force.
- Asplund put in one of those performances that typifies contributing a lot without necessarily getting a lot on the scoresheet. OK, he had at least two primary assists, but he did a lot of good things at both ends of the rink that will earn him fans on the coaching staff and in the stands.
- Mittelstadt did not score, but on most other nights, he could have had two or three with what he shot and how he shot the puck. He was also a constant threat on offense. Buffalo wisely loaded up their top line and New Jersey often just had to survive it. It is hard to make a talent like Nylander seem a little muted, but that speaks to how well Mittelstadt played and how really well Thompson played tonight.
- Olofsson plus a passer (Asplund?) is going to be a nightmare for opposing teams. His release is just that quick - there’s little time to react to it.
- In a physical game, it helps to have a strong player that throws a lot of solid hits without taking too many. William Borgen was doing just that. I think he only had one questionable one - sort of late on Quenneville, that led to Quenneville beefing and taking a call for it. But this guy was throwing the effective ones as well as the big, powerful ones. Nathan Bastian is not a small man, but Borgen ragdolled him late in the first period.
So What’s Next for Tomorrow: Since Blackwood played tonight, I would expect either Cam Johnson or Akira Schmid in net. The Devils’ skater scratches tonight were Colby Sissons, Jocktan Chainey, Brandon Baddock, John Edwardh, and Dylan Seitz. Given the defensive play, I would like to at least see Sissons and Chainey get some minutes. Goal aside, I do not think White played that well. I could see Sissons replace him or Tariq Hammond. Groleau was OK but as an invited player from players, he should take a step back for a drafted player from juniors like Chainey. Your mileage may vary on the other three.
One Last Thank You: Thanks to the @DevilsInsiders and @NJviDs for making clips on Twitter from the stream tonight to make sharing the plays so much easier. They did an awesome job doing it live in a game without commercials or very many stoppages.
Your Take: The Devils lost the first pre-preseason game 4-6. As long as no one got hurt, then that is OK to me. What about to you? Could you see this game? If so, what did you think? Who stood out to you in a good or a bad way? If you could not see the game, I’m sorry. I wish the teams involved were smarter about this. Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the loss in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed @AAtJerseyBlog on Twitter tonight. Thank you for reading.