The New Jersey Devils got off to a slow start, only being able to put together one or two passes at a time before one would go awry. Nonetheless, they managed to keep the puck away from the Buffalo Sabres in the early game before Andreas Johnsson’s far, weak shot was covered 1:45 into the game by Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.
The Buffalo Sabres took the first penalty, as Kylo Okposo went off for high sticking Ryan Graves behind Blackwood’s net four minutes into the game. The Devils sent out Hughes, Bratt, Hamilton, Bastian, and Hischier. Hamilton got the first attempt, which went wide. Hamilton made a good keep as the Sabres threatened to go the other way. Nathan Bastian and Nico Hischier fought the Sabres down low, below the goal line, and Nico got the puck out to the half-wall - and Hughes moved it back to Hamilton. Dougie ripped the one-timer through Bastian’s screen, and the Devils took a 1-0 lead!
The Devils continued to play well in the following shifts, not allowing the Sabres a good look in close on Blackwood for a few minutes after their goal. They did not get any quality chances of their own, but generally controlled the direction of play until there was about 11 and a half minutes to play in the first, when the Sabres had a couple good offensive possessions that forced Blackwood to make saves - but none too strenuous.
The Hughes line had an excellent display of puck movement with under nine minutes to play, as Ty Smith, Jack Hughes, and P.K. Subban zipped the puck around the zone for awhile as Subban took two clappers from up high. The second rebounded right to Jesper Bratt, who held the puck steady as he patiently drifted down to the goal line to take the empty net! 2-0, Devils. Prior to the goal, I liked seeing Subban fake his shot, slapping it down low to Ty Smith. Seeing Smith playing low was nice, but he still looked a bit uncomfortable. Nonetheless, he kept the play moving - and the Devils got a goal out of it.
Bratt lookin’ good from any angle. pic.twitter.com/TJkKrjACsm— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) December 30, 2021
Jonas Siegenthaler and Brett Murray got into a scrap with five minutes to play in the period after a hit by Siegenthaler was delivered to Kyle Okposo into the boards. The Devils got a power play out of this on an instigator penalty to Murray. On the power play, Alex Tuch tooka run at Jack Hughes, but only got off a glancing blow. Hughes responded by keeping his head in the game and taking a few shots through a screen - but Hamilton eventually lost the puck at the blueline and the Sabres killed the penalty. However, this was not before Andreas Johnsson held the zone and passed down low to Dawson Mercer, who slid the puck past a diving defenseman to Damon Severson, who rang it around the iron.
The first line had a dominant shift late in the period, as Pavel Zacha, Dougie Hamilton, Jesper Boqvist and Nico Hischier all had chances in the final minute. However, a save by Luukonen and a timely block by Ruotsalainen on Hischier kept the game at 2-0. Boqvist just missed a deflection, and Hamilton chipped a one-timer in the slot, easing the burden on Luukonen.
Through one, the Devils led in shots 11-3.
Tage Thompson struck back for the Buffalo Sabres early in the second period to make the game 2-1. Thompson deflected a shot by Alex Tuch past Blackwood. The Devils continued to let up chances the other way after the goal, as Blackwood had to make a save on Victor Olofsson.
The Devils then flubbed a couple opportunities of their own. Damon Severson found Michael McLeod with a cross-zone pass, but McLeod decided to pass from the lower edge of the circle into a mess of bodies. On the rush, Janne Kuokkanen fluttered a pass through for Andreas Johnsson, but Johnsson did not get his stick on it.
The Devils defense then absolutely abandoned their position, as Jesper Boqvist was weak along the wall upon a zone entry. Rasmus Dahlin lifted the puck over the Devils , giving Tage Thompson a clean breakaway to tie the game at two.
The Sabres nearly got another breakaway at the end of the fifth minute, but the stretch pass went just wide. Will Butcher soon after cut into the offensive zone and forced Blackwood to make a tough save as the Devils backed off to cover the passing lanes.
Damon Severson took the first Devils penalty of the game, as he failed to receive a pass in the offensive zone and tripped Victor Olofsson as he was about to be off to the races the other way.
Nico Hischier lost the initial draw, but the linesman blew the play dead. Michael McLeod stepped in and also lost the draw. Jonas Siegenthaler and Ryan Graves were the defensemen. Will Butcher controlled play at the top for the Sabres, and the Devils quickly moved play into the corner, where they wasted many precious seconds before Nico Hischier won it out, and skated to the Devils bench with the puck before dumping in.
Janne Kuokkanen and Marian Studenic followed up, denying the Sabres their first re-entry. Tage Thompson got in off a pass, but lost the puck down low to Ryan Graves, who poked the puck to Studenic, who cleared. Dahlin lost the puck as Severson came out of the box, but Dahlin did a one-handed shove to keep Severson off of it. Jack Hughes soon after had a partial breakaway, but it was broken up by Henri Jokiharju as Hughes went to the backhand.
Zacha had a far-side shot that was saved, and Jack Hughes was taken down as he went for the rebound. It may have been a trip from Mark Pysyk, but play went on before Luukonen covered a Graves point shot.
Jack Hughes led the Devils to another strong possessive shift with over five minutes to play, but Janne Kuokkanen was denied at the doorstep off of one of Hughes’ shot attempts.
The Devils mostly had possession for the remainder of the period, but could not connect on enough of their passes, leading to missed opportunities. The Devils had 18 shots that period to 10 for the Sabres, but could not regain the lead.
The first line came out strong to start the third, with a shot for a redirection going wide from Siegenthaler and a one-timer getting blocked in front of the net from Zacha. The Hughes line followed this up with some more attempts, but were denied.
After Pavel Zacha denied a breakout attempt from Kyle Okposo, the Devils took the opportunity to change for the Hughes line. Yegor Sharangovich got two shots off, the second deflecting off Rasmus Dahlin to Jack Hughes, who potted the go-ahead goal! 3-2.
Happy Hughes Year’s Eve Eve Eve! pic.twitter.com/Z4KeUxBmHi— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) December 30, 2021
The Hughes line struck yet again on their shift past six and a half minutes in, as Bratt took the puck away down low and worked it up high to Ty Smith. Smith ripped off a shot that was deflected by Yegor Sharangovich past Luukonen to make it a 4-2 game!
Pavel Zacha had a chance to open the lead up even more with a one-timer off a feed from Nico Hischier, but was denied by Luukonen. Zacha got the puck back and moved it across the zone back to Hischier, whose shot was blocked high by the Sabres.
Jack Hughes took the offensive zone with a burst of speed with seven and a half minutes to play, but lost the puck behind the net. He fought for it, and the Sabres weakly let the puck slide away to Yegor Sharangovich, who fired the puck over the net despite being all alone.
Marian Studenic sent the puck the wrong way after the Devils gained the zone with just over six and a half to play, and Tage Thompson raced Dougie Hamilton down the ice with the puck. Thompson was forced to shoot from somewhat far out, and Blackwood turned the puck away.
Nonetheless, the Sabres were still on the hunt. Ethan Prow, in his NHL debut, jumped on a rebound off a one-timer from the point and shot it under Blackwood’s skate, making it a 4-3 game.
The Devils played the next few minutes strongly, as Nico Hischier and Jesper Boqvist kept the puck deep in the Sabres’ zone for a solid shift. Jack Hughes’ line played well, keeping the Sabres from getting any chances on Blackwood. Hamilton iced the puck with 1:19 to play, and the Sabres called timeout.
Off the draw, the Sabres played it down low to Alex Tuch. Hamilton got the puck out but not far enough. He had to break up a pass across Blackwood from his knees. Blackwood soon after had to make a save before Nathan Bastian blocked a shot high, and Rasmus Dahlin shot the puck out of play from the neutral zone with 28.8 to play. Nico Hischier’s line took the ice with Luukonen back in net, as the draw came to the Sabres’ defensive zone. Nico won the draw but the Sabres got on it first. Nico poked the puck away in the neutral zone but was disrupted before he could get a break on the empty net. He was taken down from behind as he tried to score on the empty net upon collecting it at the netside, to no call - but he had done enough to seal the game for the Devils at 4-3.
The Opposition Opinion: Check out Die By the Blade.
Big Game Jack
Tonight, Jack Hughes had his fourth career multi-point game. He factored into every single goal for the New Jersey Devils with a goal and two assists, plus some hard play leading to the loose puck that Bratt took away prior to the Sharangovich goal. If anyone benefitted from the COVID break, it was definitely Jack. Not only was he using his speed and offensive creativity, he was as opportunistic as ever going for takeaways, and he was leaning into opponents while rushing the offensive zone. I would say this was the most he has engaged physically since his return from injury, and I might chalk that up to the extra rest this break has given him.
The Hischier line being used to take the opponent’s top line away worked wonders for the Hughes line. They were tasked with the Miller-Krebs-Okposo line - which Miller was eventually taken off. In over five minutes against the original Sabres’ second line, Jack Hughes’ line had a 9-0 shots advantage, allowed 0 attempts against, and scored two goals. They did not fare as well when Olofsson took Miller’s spot, but only allowed three shots against in 11:12 together.
“You need your best players to make a difference and Jack made a real difference for us.”— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) December 30, 2021
Hear from Lindy Ruff following tonight’s 4-3 win in Buffalo. pic.twitter.com/USRNFfSitI
Jesper Bratt, also with a goal and two assists, brought his season total up to 27 points in 30 games. That is a 73-point pace if Bratt plays 81 of 82 games for the Devils. Since his slow start to the season, Bratt has played to an 88 to 89 points per 82 games pace. He should soon surpass his career high of 35 points set in his rookie season of 74 games. Yegor Sharangovich, with a goal and an assist, is up to 12 points in 28 games this season. With 82 career NHL games in the books, he has 42 points.
“We played a good solid game. We still have a long way to go to play to our highest potential, which is exciting.”— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) December 30, 2021
More Bratt: https://t.co/Pvzn6lkaYW
Hughes: https://t.co/zjvxZIZFRX pic.twitter.com/n5OB1wWTI8
I loved how this line worked tonight. Sharangovich fired away on Luukonen, as Hughes and Bratt worked the Buffalo defense up and down. If they continue to get tasked with less-difficult competition, expect to see them continue scoring.
Evaluating the First Line, Featuring Boqvist
I got very mad at Jesper Boqvist in the second period for losing the puck along the wall as the Devils were entering the zone, leading to the breakaway for Tage Thompson. Truth be told, though, the first line was rather solid tonight - only allowing three shots against. Two happened to beat Mackenzie Blackwood.
5v5 shot contributions for #NJDevils forwards vs BUF. Jack Hughes broke my chart in the last game before the pause so it's only fitting he broke my chart in the first game back. The top-6, as a whole, created a ton pic.twitter.com/VXhhCyZkBk— Todd Cordell (@ToddCordell) December 30, 2021
While the first line was not tanked in possession tonight - actually dominating in this aspect with a 75.00 CF% - you cannot give up two goals as a first line and regularly expect to win. Fortunately, they created plenty of opportunities for themselves - and even Boqvist had four shot attempts at even strength and just missed on a deflection. Regardless, I felt like Boqvist fell into the “passenger” category tonight. The Devils offense, with the first line on, was mostly a show of Nico Hischier manhandling the puck through an onslaught of defenders and getting creative with Pavel Zacha. When you only have two threats on a line, the defense can adjust quickly - and both Zacha and Hischier were the victims of blocks on what would have been good to great chances to score tonight.
Beyond the top six, I thought Janne Kuokkanen and Nathan Bastian had good games. That’s about it - but Johnsson did not do anything bad, at least. Kuokkanen was strong in the neutral zone and looked the most comfortable in the offensive zone. Marian Studenic was “active” but flubbed a clear shot at the net and nearly gave Tage Thompson a second breakaway. Dawson Mercer was not decisive enough with the puck as the game got to the late stages, and McLeod was invisible. I would not be mad if Janne Kuokkanen and Jesper Boqvist were switched for the Oilers game, if the Devils get nobody back before then.
The Ups and Downs for the Defense
The Devils’ defense, on the surface, played a good game tonight. They only allowed 22 shots to make it through to Blackwood. Only four shots against were of the high-danger variety according to Natural Stat Trick. Unfortunately, three of those ended up in the back of the net. The first was from the Tage Thompson deflection.
Here, Mackenzie Blackwood has to look around Severson and Thompson. Severson fails to take Thompson’s stick out of the equation, and does not make much of an impact with the body shots either. Tage Thompson is a big man, but Damon Severson is not exactly small and needs to be stronger on his skates here. Onto the second goal:
On the second goal by Tage Thompson, Boqvist could have done a better job at the wall, but the Devils cannot be so bunched up as they enter the zone. The Sabres had two men behind the defense. When Dahlin breaks up Boqvist’s move and has a clear shot the other way, Dougie needs to break back. It might not have made a difference, but he made it too easy. Onto the third goal:
"You miss 100% of the shots you don't take."— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) December 30, 2021
- Wayne Gretzky
- Michael Scott
- Ethan Prow pic.twitter.com/HhrDQdr1lt
On the third goal, the defense actually does its job. Siegenthaler fights off his man to the side of the net, and Damon Severson takes away his man in the netfront. Dawson Mercer loses the cutting 29 year old defenseman, Ethan Prow, as he collected the rebound and scores a garbage goal underneath Blackwood’s foot. Prior to the goal, Severson improves on Cody Eakin where he failed with Tage Thompson by lifting the stick during the shot, preventing a deflection. Blackwood and Mercer did not hold up their ends of the bargain.
On the offensive end, the defense was as active as ever. You might argue that they were a bit too active. I have said, many times, that Jonas Siegenthaler needs to shoot less. He had five attempts tonight. I am more comfortable with Damon Severson taking a lot of shots - as his actually find the net now and then. Dougie Hamilton was outstanding tonight on the power play with some key holds on plays that felt like they could have been rushes the other way, in addition to the goal. Ryan Graves played the way he should tonight.
That third pairing though? Their best game together yet. I had my doubts about putting Ty Smith with P.K. Subban. I thought Subban would thrive more with the defensive support of Jonas Siegenthaler, but he proved tonight he could use Smith to his advantage. They combined with the Hughes line for some excellent puck movement, and P.K. Subban used his shot to great effect tonight. He got five of his seven attempts on net, and displayed masterful use of the fake-shot slap pass (which I would like to see much more often) in the lead-up to Jack Hughes’ goal.
Blackwood Bailed Out
Yes, Mackenzie Blackwood did not play a great game. He saw four truly dangerous shots on goal and only stopped one. It happens - and Mackenzie Blackwood has always been a streaky goaltender. He has also played through a neck injury that he might have been given more time off of playing with had it not been for Jonathan Bernier’s season-ending, possibly career-threatening hip issue (Cory Schneider, anyone?). As Lindy Ruff said about Bernier, per Mike Morreale:
“I am worried,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “We’re all concerned about long term (health) and where this is going to go, where we’ll end up going forward, so I’m worried and very concerned.”
Additionally, Blackwood never got fully past his heel pain.
Steve Cangialosi just said on the post-game show that Mackenzie Blackwood is still dealing with pain in his heel and that it's something he's going to play through the rest of the season #NJDevils— Alex Chauvancy (@AlexC_THW) December 30, 2021
It’s clear that the Devils goaltenders have been through a lot this season. And that’s not even mentioning last year (or the year before that, or...) - so this team needs Mackenzie Blackwood right now. But sometimes, your goaltender needs his team to score an extra goal to bail him out of a game where he doesn’t play too great. In his eight games prior to tonight, Blackwood’s only win came in a shutout.
At the very least, Blackwood did not let up any “bad” goals tonight. Sure, he should have had the save on Prow, but Prow was in a dangerous area and Mercer could have defended him (much) better than he did. I cannot fault Blackwood on either of the Thompson goals, specifically, though you want to see a “core piece” goaltender come up big on a breakaway. Just be thankful that Blackwood did not let in a long-ranger stinker of a goal, and the Devils were able to bounce back from their bad beginning to the second period to get the team back in the win column.
The Devils’ skaters lifted their goaltender up tonight after hanging him out to dry for a whole month. Now, Mackenzie Blackwood is going to have to pay them back with a good game against the Edmonton Oilers on Friday.
What did you think tonight? How do you think the depth fared without Tatar and Vesey? What did you make of Dawson Mercer tonight? How about Michael McLeod? When Tatar and Vesey come back, which of the wingers come out of the lineup? How do you feel about Blackwood? What did you think of the Smith-Subban pairing? How impressive was Jack Hughes? Did Nico Hischier look like a “perimeter player” tonight? (I mean, come on, I was rolling my eyes the whole night thinking about that garbage.) Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
As always, thanks for following, whether you did so in the gamethread or on Twitter with @AATJerseyBlog. This is Chris - I’ll see you on New Years’ Eve.