The Devils lost the first game of the regular season in dramatic fashion last night, riding a four goal lead into a shootout loss against the Winnipeg Jets. They’ll have little time to dwell on their mistakes though as they had to immediately jump on a plane to Buffalo to take on the Sabres in a cool welcome-to-the-regular-season back to back. Hopefully a quick morning skate and a good day of tape review will have the Devils back to their best selves in time for tonight’s puck drop.
The Match-up: The New Jersey Devils (0-0-1) vs the Buffalo Sabres (1-0-0)
The Time: 7:00pm EST
The Broadcast: MSGB/MSG+
Last Meeting: Besides the prospect tournament in September, the last time the Devils saw the Buffalo Sabres was back on March 25th. The Devils lineup was at one of its lowest points of the season, but a healthy Cory Schneider had just returned. Cory 2.0 led the Devils to a 3-1 win with 45 saves and a .978 sv%. Blake Coleman opened the scoring with an early power play goal less than two minutes into the start of the first period. Buffalo’s Sam Reinhart tied it up about five minutes later with a shot from the point that took an odd hop right past Schneider (and gave the entire Devils fan base a stroke in the process). The Sabres were nice enough to provide two more power play opportunities for the Devils to take the lead again, and they did in the third period with a sharp angle shot from Pavel Zacha past a screen by Miles Wood. Wood sealed the win for the Devils with an empty net goal in the waning minutes of the game.
The Opposition: Buffalo’s lineup looks mostly the same as it did back in March. Over the off-season they did add former Devil Marcus Johansson, and have swapped out a few of the rookies and prospects from the lower lines. Star forwards Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner still lead the team in most offensive categories, and their highly touted defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen and Rasmus Dahlin are threatening in either zone.
The Sabres Season Opener went a bit better than ours did. Buffalo opened their regular season Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins with a 3-1 win. Though the Penguins did score once, the game was all Sabres as they lit up goaltender Matt Murray with 41 shots and 35 scoring chances and managed a ridiculous 15 high danger chances to the Penguins 3. The Sabres top line, which consisted of Sam Reinhart, Jack Eichel, and AHL call-up Victor Olafsson, did well but were managed less shots and scoring chances than their third line did despite playing nearly twice the ice time. Top defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen made his presence known as usual, finishing t-2nd on the team with four shots on goal along with Captain Eichel, and one shot less than Skinner. If you’re keeping track of former Devils, Johansson finished the game as one of only two Sabres to not record a shot on net, the other being rookie defenseman Henri Jokiharu.
The Devils So Far: Last night went very good and then very bad for the Devils, who opened with four glorious goals, controlled the vast majority of the game and headed into the third period up 4-1 before things fell apart in the third. For full coverage of exactly what fell apart, check out John’s recap here, but here’s a brief summary: The Devils forward lines were shuffled after the second period, splitting Jesper Bratt off the second line with Nikita Gusev and Jack Hughes and swapping him with John Hayden. Travis Zajac also took a shift or two with the pair later in the third as well. In his post-game interview John Hynes stated he was ‘looking to add stability to Jack’s line’ in his decision to shuffle the lines this way. It could just have been a ‘well we’re up by three goals, let’s test this out’ but whatever the reason it didn’t seem to sit well. Gusev-Hughes-Hayden were out when the Jets scored their second goal early in the third period. This goal seemed to rub Cory Schneider the wrong way, and he immediately left the game and did not return to the Devils bench. Mackenzie Blackwood was forced into the game after sitting for two periods, and definitely not primed for the onslaught of Winnipeg offense the Devils were about to face as the Jets kicked on their afterburners and the Devils struggled to adjust. They spent much of the third period pinned in their own zone, including an over two-minute shift for the group that was on the ice leading to Winnipeg’s tying goal. A few questionable decisions and non-calls by the officials did not help New Jersey’s cause either. Despite a few good chances, the Devils legs were clearly burned and they couldn’t put the game away as regulation ended or in 3-on-3 overtime, so we went to the shootout. Nikita Gusev made scoring look easy, but the rest of the Devils that went just didn’t seem to have the touch or the energy to score in the shootout, and Blackwood just wasn’t himself as he let in two goals to tip the game to Winnipeg.
Injury Report: When interviewed after the game, Taylor Hall said he believes Schneider was just cramping and not injured, though Coach John Hynes simply stated the goaltender is ‘undergoing further evaluation’ so take both of those as you will. The plan is for both goaltenders to share the load evenly going into this season, so Mackenzie Blackwood was expected to start tonight anyway. Unfortunately now instead of going in fresh he’ll be going in having played a full period, overtime, and a shootout last night, so hopefully he’s feeling primed and ready to go and not drained from his unexpected jump into the game.
What to Expect Tonight: Despite the sour ending, last night had some great points that we can take and focus really, really closely on to try to avoid thinking about the end result. Nikita Gusev scored his first NHL goal of what looks like will be many, many (many???) to come. Blake Coleman is continuing his ridiculous tear from last season, and Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt both seem to be ready to take their game to yet another level this year. Not sure who will be in the lineup along the bottom six tonight, but I’m hopeful we will get to see Jesper Boqvist take the ice this time. If he’s in again I’ll also be watching John Hayden, who played far better than I expected him to prior to the line shufflage.
Your Take: Who or what are you watching for in tonight’s lineup? What are your expectations going into tonight, and have they changed at all after game #1? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and please enjoy this video of the Goose’s first NHL goal to hopefully get y’all a little hyped up for tonight!
Welcome to the National Hockey League, Nikita Gusev. pic.twitter.com/mfFY5Urtus— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) October 5, 2019
And just in case you’re still not excited, here’s Coleman defying the laws of physics, because he can.
The season is young, and this stacked Devils team is just getting started. In the wise words of Jack Hughes, lets go baby! LGD