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Game Preview #8: New Jersey Devils at Buffalo Sabres

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In a the first half of a back-to-back, the Devils face an old friend of sorts as they hope to bounce back from their Flyers series.

New Jersey Devils v Buffalo Sabres
Pavel Zacha will probably be our second line center today. Is he up to the task?
Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (3-3-1) at the Buffalo Sabres (3-3-2). SBN Blog: Die By The Blade

The Time: 1:00 PM

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+

In the Absence of Zajac

The Devils will have to make some major adjustments to their game plan without one of their middle six centers (and most reliable one) this afternoon. As reported yesterday, Travis Zajac entered the COVID protocol and will not play today or tomorrow. This means a few things: Lindy Ruff needs to figure out how to shuffle the middle six to accommodate this temporary loss, as well as figure out what to do with the top unit of the penalty kill. Zajac has also appeared on the top unit of the power play at times this season, and Ruff will have to make adjustments there to not having his faceoff man. His absence from the penalty kill is unfortunate, as they finally had their first perfect kill of the season on Thursday, giving up no power play shots on goal against.

Last game versus Philadelphia, Lindy Ruff tried to shuffle the lines so that the second line was Pavel Zacha, Zajac, and Kyle Palmieri, while the third line was Miles Wood, Yegor Sharangovich, and Nikita Gusev. The Zajac line took some time to gel but looked more comfortable by the second and third periods, but the Sharangovich line was quickly buried and ended up playing just 4:49 together, according to Natural Stat Trick - and all three played fewer than 10 minutes at even strength in total.

With Nick Merkley joining the practice, it hardly seems like a good idea to just him on the second line and leaving it at that. The Sharangovich line was a waste of all three players, and a full shuffle is in order. To make the lines work, I could even see someone like Jesper Bratt being dropped down a line so that the middle six does not fall apart in the absence of Zajac. We’ll see what Ruff comes up with right before game time.

The Sabres

These were the lines for the Buffalo Sabres in practice yesterday.

If you thought putting Will Butcher on the extras pairing in practice was a bad idea, try to wrap your head around Rasmus Dahlin being on the fourth pairing in practice. Also notable on these lines is Tage Thompson - brother of Tyce - on the first line next to Jack Eichel. In his career, Tage Thompson has 22 points in 111 games. Meanwhile, perennial 20 goal scorer Jeff Skinner continues to play on the fourth line.

What I gather from these Buffalo Sabres is that Ralph Krueger does not utilize the talent he has been given very well, and the Devils may be able to take advantage of their odd lineup choices. Sam Reinhart, who has six points in eight games, also did not practice yesterday with a day-to-day upper body injury. So while the Devils are missing one of their centers, the Sabres are as well.

Also, given that Linus Ullmark played on Thursday in their overtime loss to the Rangers, the Devils will almost certainly see both Ullmark and Carter Hutton this weekend. Ullmark has a .915 save percentage and 2.51 goals against average to go with a 2-1-2 record, while Carter Hutton has a .899 save percentage and 2.65 goals against average with a 1-2-0 record. Given Blackwood and Dell are still on the Devils’ quarantine list, we will also probably see a split of Scott Wedgewood and Eric Comrie this weekend. We’ll see what order Ruff and Krueger decide to go in.

Key to the Game

The Devils need to play a whole 60 minute effort. If things start going the other way despite their best efforts, they cannot be taking bad penalties (looking at you, P.K. Subban) to vent their frustration and they cannot continue to squander their power play opportunities if they want to win a game. While I do not expect a change in the defense tonight, as Matt Tennyson was good last game - and he would be the most likely to be removed from the lineup - I hope that Lindy Ruff went over some of their misplays and errors in practice yesterday. Limiting defensive zone positional mistakes would be quite helpful against players like Jack Eichel, Taylor Hall, and Eric Staal.

Your Thoughts

What do you think of this afternoon’s game? Are you going to be able to watch? Are you looking forward to it? What do you think the lines will end up being? Do you think the top line will stay together, or should it be split up to help the other lines play? Who do you want to see in goal today? Do you think the Devils can win? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.