We start the game with our best line, Michael McLeod, Nate Bastian, and Miles Wood. Words I’m only half-sarcastic in writing. What a weird season this is.
Both teams come out flying tonight, even faster than our typical game speed has been so far this season. Buffalo is hurting bad for a win and they’re hunting for it today. They get a real good look at the start of one early on in the period as CAPTAIN (!!) Nico Hischier fanned on a shot from the point that leads to a 2 on 0 down the ice but Mackenzie Blackwood stands strong, helped out by a furiously backchecking Hischier. The Johnsson Hughes Bratt line brings the first strong pressure for the Devils so far this game, kicked off by a surprise rush from Damon Severson. They hem the Sabres in their zone and fire shot after shot, which is a thing of beauty compared to the years of seasons I spend yelling shoot at the TV as we played hot potato in the zone rather than risk taking a shot. Linus Ullmark stands strong in the Sabres net however and eventually is able to freeze the puck and stop the onslaught.
The Sabres move the play back the other way, starting with a drive and a shot from Staal that forces Blackwood to freeze the puck. The Sabres win the ensuing faceoff and scramble the Devils defense. They drop it back to Colin Miller, who takes a few steps and fires a bullet at a heavily screened Blackwood, who can’t find the puck to make the save. Buffalo finds the scoreboard first and the Devils are down 1-0.
Hughes’ line again comes on and turns up the pressure on the Sabres, forcing them to take an icing. McLeod’s line comes on with Bratt in place of Bastian, who is currently missing from the bench due to a high stick to the face. They draw a penalty from Cody Eaken for delay of game, so we’ll see the first Hischier powerplay in action this season.
It doesn’t start off well, with a shorthanded rush for Buffalo pretty soon off the draw, but Blackwood handles the single shot and the Devils move back towards the Sabres’ end. PP2 takes the ice, but struggles to get through into the zone. Clear after clear from the Sabres’ leaves this powerplay dead in the water, and the penalty expires without a shot for the Devils.
The good news for the Devils is the return of Nate Bastian after the penalty, which reunites the crash line, the only line untouched by the shufflings in the past few games. The rest of the lines don’t seem to have their usual chemistry today, which is not unexpected given the constant line changes as we add players back into the lineup. Growing pains, unfortunately, that we’ll have to continue to play through if we want to improve.
The Devils are continuing to do the right things— winning faceoffs, breaking out, occasionally getting some time in the Sabres’ zone— but the Sabres have been excellent at getting between passes and forcing the Devils to make turnovers or retreat. Ty Smith carries the puck across the blue line and forces the Sabres to make a mistake of their own: Reinhart slashes him on the hands and we go back to the power play.
This powerplay looks miles better than the first one. They command the zone, with Palmieri in the left circle throwing bombs, Nico Hischier at net-front nearly putting in a rebound from behind the net, Jack Hughes at the half wall firing off slick shots and passes. It takes the Sabres 1 minute and 40 seconds to clear the zone and stop the Devils blitz. No goals to speak of, but an incredible improvement over the previous powerplay.
The Sabres come back out hard and force Blackwood to make another huge save in front of the net before the clock runs out on a hectic period. The Devils’ defensive strategy this period seems more like a slumber party pillow fight in front of the net every time the Sabres find the puck in front of Blackwood than a confident NHL team, so hopefully Ruff has a great intermission speech up his sleeve that can settle the team down. We need to get back to commanding the pace of the play, not trying to catch up to it.
The Sabres are not going to take a backseat to their first lead in over a month. They come out to start the second period just the same as the first. The Devils, to their credit, do look a bit more settled in—in particular Nico’s line. This will be a long, very fast game.
Zacha and Kuokkanen continue to have some excellent chemistry together. The Devils’ first big scoring chance of the period comes on a lightning-fast pass across the ice from Zacha to Kuokkanen, who fires a blistering one-timer that Ullmark somehow gets a hold of. Buffalo turns the play around and hems that line into their own zone after the faceoff. Some big shots force Blackwood to make some big saves, but he’s up for the challenge as always. Mac seems to be one of the few Devils on the ice who isn’t scrambling despite the rapid pace of the game.
One of the more interesting parts of this game has been watching the frequent matchup of McLeod vs Dylan Cozens. Here, McLeod enters the zone and catches the puck off an attempted clear, flips it off the boards behind Cozens and regains it himself on the other side almost behind his own back. Just more of the same that’s been going on in this matchup throughout the game—McLeod really walking Cozens to the L store every time they battle for a puck, which is another thing I would not in a million years have expected from that line before this season.
Back down into the Devils zone and Buffalo wins another offensive zone face-off, drops the puck to a defenseman—this time Irwin, who follows the same play and rips a shot that seems to have been tipped just enough by Reinhart to find the back of the net. Buffalo jumps up another level on the scoreboard, now leading 2-0.
Now down 2-0, the Devils need nothing more than to settle themselves down, settle the game down, and get back to their playing style. Unfortunately instead we see more of the same scrambling to make plays and forcing passes that the Sabres can see coming a mile away, and intercept every time. Like I said before, the missing chemistry is to be expected given the line shufflings and returning players, and it’s just something the team is going to have to find a way to play around if they want to come back and win this game. The Sabres controlling the pace also seems to have taken a toll on the Devils forechecking, which has been excellent in recent games but is straying into the realms of lazy this game. When the Devils are controlling the game, they are able to change and then pressure, meaning the forechecker has a fresh set of legs. With the Sabres controlling the game, they back up at their leisure, which usually results in the Devils forechecker being at the end of their shift and just doing it until they can get off the ice. That alone is taking away a huge aspect of the Devils newfound style under coach Ruff, and it’s going to be hard to fix this far into the game without something big changing the whole flow.
As it starts to look like the second period will close without further incident, Kyle Okposo draws a holding penalty from Dmitri Kulikov, and the Devils are forced to the penalty kill. As much as the Sabres have struggled at 5v5, their powerplay has been their best weapon, and it doesn’t fail them here. Not 30 seconds into the man-advantage and the Devils left Sam Reinhart wide open in Blackwood’s kitchen. He’s able to redirect a shot from Eichel past Blackwood and put the Sabres up 3-0. Bad penalty for Kulikov to take, and a terrible penalty kill from Subban and Vatanen.
The Devils best opportunity of the period comes towards the end of the period as Palmieri rips a shot off the post that rebounds in the front of a wide-open net for Hughes, who would’ve had an open goal to shoot on if his stick wasn’t obstructed by a diving Buffalo defenseman. Despite a few last-minute chances to close the period, the Devils remain scoreless and will go into the second intermission trailing 3-0.
We start the third period with some line changes, and it sure looks like it was a good choice. Palmieri joins Jack Hughes and Andreas Johnsson, who gain the zone and set up in front of the net. Palmieri takes a shot that flutters a bit on its way past and disorients Ullmark enough to find its way past him and into the net. 40 seconds into the third period and the Devils are on the board, 3-1.
Not a bad way to start the period— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) February 20, 2021
: Hughes pic.twitter.com/aMts3ULs5J
Nico Hischier’s new linemates for the third period are Pavel Zacha and Jesper Bratt. Travis Zajac lines up between Kuokkanen and Sharangovitch, and the fourth line continues to stay together. We’ll never know what Ruff said between periods besides changing the lines, but it sure seems to have worked. The Devils are coming out this period with just a bit more spark in their step this time, but their struggles continue against a Buffalo team that just not let them get any momentum on plays.
Halfway through the period, the Sabres lose Jake McCabe on an ugly play that started off as a big hit on Nico Hischier, but Hischier’s just a bit too slippery for him and wormed out behind it, leaving McCabe’s knee twisting at an awkward angle. McCabe was helped off the ice, putting no weight on the leg.
Nico Hischier’s next shift sees him set up Ty Smith for a shot that has to have broken the time-space continuum for it not to have gone in the net, but the refs insist it didn’t and we play on.
Jesper Bratt rushes into the zone all alone, dangling around three Sabres and making his way to the net but Ullmark gets the pad out on him. Jack Hughes is the next Devil to make his solo attempt at the Sabres net, taking a shot from a wider angle that forces Ullmark to make a tougher save but he still manages it. With the third period winding down and chemistry between the lines at an unusual low, it seems the boys are starting to get desperate and are trying to make rushes on their own.
The new Zacha Hischier Bratt line tries their hand together at forcing a goal, to no avail, but they do manage to draw a penalty as Jack Eichel trips PK Subban. The last powerplay was a stunner that did everything but finish, so the expectations going into this one are as high as the stakes.
They set up well, but the Buffalo penalty kill is just as desperate if not more. Diving plays for the puck, abandoning the box to make sweeps at the puck carrier, the Sabres are making it as hard as possible for the Devils to get anything accomplished. After Ullmark is forced to freeze the puck, Lindy Ruff calls a timeout with just under half the penalty remaining and nearly 4 minutes to go in the game. Hischier, Hughes, Smith, Subban, Zacha, and Bratt take the ice and Blackwood goes to the bench for a 6 on 4.
Zacha wins the face-off and the Devils set up. Jack Hughes gets the puck, sends it behind the net to Jesper Bratt, who sends it to Zacha on the half wall, who tees up PK Subban for a blast that hits the crossbar and bounces down behind Ullmark into the net. The Devils cut the Sabres’ lead to a single goal with 3 minutes left in the game. 3-2 Buffalo.
Hughes and Johnsson can’t get in the zone, so Hischier, Bratt and Sharangovitch come out. Blackwood returns to the bench as they battle for the zone but on the ensuing change, the Devils get caught and ice the puck, so he’s forced to come back on the ice. The Devils get the opportunity to pull Blackwood one final time as Wood, Palmieri, Hughes and Zacha pile into the Sabres crease, even eventually joined by Subban. Zacha comes incredibly close to tying the game but his shot is blocked by Colin Miller, and the period ends in a scrap heap in front of the Sabres net with the Devils still down a goal. Buffalo wins their first game in weeks and the Devils fall short of a 5 game win streak.
The Game Stats
The Game Highlights
I’m not going to put a good and bad summary here because the real result would be good, Sabres, bad, Devils. Or even just Good Devils, Better Sabres. Honestly, no one as an individual played particularly bad. Everyone had too many giveaways and too many dumb passes, as well as some great plays that just nothing came out of. Blackwood may want a few of those goals back, but they were well screened or perfectly tipped and there wasn’t much he could do to steal this game for the team. The Devils were creating scoring chances to be sure. The Sabres blocked over a third of the shots we took. The 5v5 Corsi was almost perfectly even, we actually controlled a good portion of it per the Natural Stat Trick gameflow chart, and we generated 18 scoring chances compared to the Sabres 21.
Where we failed miserably was turning those chances into high danger chances. We had a whopping 2 at 5 on 5 in the entire game. Buffalo had 11. You’re not winning any game with those numbers. No single line was responsible for more than 2 of those high danger chances against us, although the Sharangovitch - Zacha - Kuokkanen was unusually horrible in other areas. In 8 minutes of ice time between the first and second period, they allowed ten shot attempts against and did not generate a single one. Sharangovitch finished the game with a CF% of 6. Not 6 shots, 6%. That is absolutely atrocious. Thankfully Ruff shuffled the lines and split that trio up in the third period and relieving that black hole may have had a huge part to do with the Devils almost-comeback, but that line alone was not the only problem. Regardless of how much better the stats looked for the other lines, none of them looked any different on the scoresheet.
No amount of pointing fingers at one player or line will change the simple fact that we lost this game because the Buffalo Sabres came out with more fight, beat us at our own game, and outplayed us. When you’re playing a team desperate for a win like the Sabres were coming into today, that’s going to happen. The Devils were that team for many of their wins in the last couple seasons. As I mentioned a few times, adding new faces in and changing up the lines is another factor the team is going to have to deal with as we develop a full, healthy roster for the first time this season. This one hurts because it’s a game we could have won, but Buffalo just played better this time. As the saying goes, you either win or you learn, and there’s plenty of lessons to be taken from this game that will make us a better team when we face the Washington Capitals tomorrow night.
What did you feel went wrong for the Devils tonight? Who played the best for us (besides MB29) ? How do you feel about our new Captain Hischier? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and thanks for reading!