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Game Preview #14: New Jersey Devils vs Buffalo Sabres

After dropping two straight, the Devils look to get back on track with a better performance against the Buffalo Sabres.

Buffalo Sabres v New Jersey Devils Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (6-5-2) versus the Buffalo Sabres (5-8-2). SBN Blog: Die By The Blade.

The Time: 7:00 PM

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+

Injury Bug Hits the Sabres

Since the Devils played the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday afternoon, defenseman Jake McCabe has been diagnosed with torn ligaments in his right knee.

This is coming at a difficult time for the Buffalo Sabres. Rasmus Ristolainen is already out with what seems like a post-COVID syndrome (possibly similar to the one that is keeping Marco Rossi out from hockey for the rest of his season). Among Sabres defensemen, Ristolainen was first in average ice time with 23:34 per game before his issues with COVID, and Jake McCabe was fourth with 19:11 before his knee injury - as the two also formed an effective pairing together. McCabe has been instrumental in Buffalo’s defensive zone play when he has been on the ice, so I do not expect the Sabres to have an easy time replacing him for the rest of the season.

Meanwhile, Will Borgen was held out of their game last night against the New York Islanders. He is listed as having an upper-body injury and may play tonight against the Devils.

Jeff Skinner’s Struggles

If you thought the Anaheim Ducks were crazy for waiving Adam Henrique a couple of days ago, then you might want to keep an eye on Jeff Skinner in Buffalo. Skinner, who has a cap hit of $9 million through the 2026-27 season and currently makes $10 million this season, has zero goals and one assist through 14 appearances this season. Head coach Ralph Krueger has kept Jeff Skinner down the lineup, reducing his ice time to an average of 13:36 per game, down from 16:29 last year and 18:31 in his first season in Buffalo when he scored 40 goals. Even if Jeff Skinner is in the lineup again tonight, do not expect Ralph Krueger to be able to make any use out of his skill set.

Goaltender Matchup

Last night, Linus Ullmark faced 23 shots for the Buffalo Sabres, saving 20 in their 3-2 loss to the Islanders. Ullmark is 4-4-2 this season with a .906 save percentage and 2.66 goals against average. He was also the Sabres goaltender in both of their wins against the Devils this season. Carter Hutton has only played one game in February - on February 16. He played the Devils on January 31, when he gave up four goals and picked up the loss. On the season, he has a .898 save percentage and 2.85 goals against average to go along with his 1-4-0 record. For the Devils, expect MacKenzie Blackwood to be back in goal. After his loss to Buffalo on Saturday, Blackwood is 4-1-1 with a .938 save percentage and 2.12 goals against average.

Improving the Special Teams

Had the Devils’ penalty kill not been beyond repair this season, they might have won at least one of their last two games. However, the situation is dire in Newark.

With a terrible expected goals against per 60, an inordinate number of shots against, very little attack the other way, and a measly .777 save percentage, the Devils have been allowing goals on the penalty kill at a pace not seen in recent memory. No matter how well the team plays at five-on-five, and no matter what small improvements have been made to the power play recently, the penalty kill continues to sink the team. John did a write-up about the penalty kill yesterday.

Regarding what can be done to improve the penalty kill, I have a couple ideas. First, they should play Ty Smith with Dmitry Kulikov. Lindy Ruff has not utilized Smith in a penalty killing situation - and while Smith is not exactly the biggest player, I suspect he might be better at getting in the passing lanes than the other Devils defensemen have been so far this season. Using Smith could allow the Devils to get P.K. Subban off the power play, who has been pretty horrdenous. Otherwise, the Devils should use one of Nico Hischier or Jack Hughes at the top of the zone to pressure the puck carrier. They have not been generating enough pressure around the defensive zone, and timid defense from the forwards has allowed opposition to attack low in the zone without fear of turning the puck over. The Devils’ play at even strength has been good this season - fixing the penalty kill is necessary to staying competitive, unless they take no penalties at all.

Your Thoughts

What do you think about tonight’s game? Do you think there should be any lineup changes? Do you think what was used on Sunday was fine and should be stuck with? Should the bottom six be reshuffled? Do you think the Devils can make adjustments and play the whole game like their third period on Saturday? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.