This Devils team, with all of their injured players completely healthy, have looked worse than when they were a team full of young players fighting for a chance.
From what I see, the Devils started off strong in the early season because the introduction of Ruff implemented a more offensive game style compared to previous seasons. The new look Devils were creative in their own end, utilizing tricky passes and constant pressure to break through their defensive zone and start counterattacks.
It was immensely successful at first - the kids were fighting for every puck battle and passes were crisp. Teams were consistently befuddled by this new style - this wasn’t the same Devils of old.
However, as the season trudged along, I began to notice that teams had begun figuring the Devils out.
Penalty kill struggles aside - we’ll get to that in a bit - teams are starting to know what to do. This Devils team loves outlet passes from the side, to the point where they neglect any drives down the middle of the ice. Chipped passes against the board are the new play for the Devils - but what happens if teams expect this and park a player there? What happens if these chipped passes are too hot to handle, especially with opposing players quickly approaching? Players get pinned in the zone, extending their shifts even longer. Sometimes, even with this team fatigued off of a tough defensive shift, they choose to try to skate the puck into the offensive zone, which often time is met with failure.
I do have to give credit where credit is due - the Sabres played very well today. Taylor Hall and Jack Eichel were dominating the Devils with their play today and I don’t think it was due to a lack of effort from some of the Devils side. Ullmark was solid today - downright amazing in the last minute of the game. He made a couple of world class saves and you could see his disappointment in losing his shutout to a Nikita Gusev shot.
Were the Devils sloppy? Yes - they consistently failed to find or handle loose pucks, resulting in many giveaways and takeaways. However, the Devils, particularly Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt, were always on and trying to put energy back into the game only to have nothing to show from it.
That said, the disappointment and anger a lot of Devils fans are feeling, including myself, is justifiably derived from the fact that this was supposed to be our A-team. Hischier, Zajac, Gusev and Vatanen are all back, so theoretically we should’ve been even better than our early season, where we were borderline really good.
The game itself was nothing to write home about for the Devils. It was the same formula as the previous two - the Devils started off strong, with the pace clearly on their side. The first period was filled with a myriad of chances, with Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt pressuring Sabres defensemen with drives to the nets as a result of their craftiness and speed. However, the signs were there that the Sabres were figuring out the Devils late in the first. At the 17 minute mark, the Sabres recognized that the Devils players would try to force hot-potato passes to guys close to them and man-marked to break that style down. With that adjustment, the Devils were pinned in their own zone for the remaining minutes of the game and tide was beginning to turn.
After this, the second period was all Sabres. They constantly out-pressured the Devils on the puck, resulting in sloppy passing and the inability to handle the puck as the Devils attempted to break into the Sabres zone. Michael McLeod was called for a penalty kill three minutes into the game, and the Devils penalty kill was..... as expected. What was surprising was that no goal occurred for the Sabres. Some unknown being cursed Jack Eichel on this power-play, as he found himself with two amazing opportunities which both rang off the iron. A Devils power-play saw some good movement on their end - their power play has definitely improved since the beginning of the season - but nothing came out of it. Sami Vatanen was then called for tripping Taylor Hall immediately after and the Sabres would not mess up again. In what Ken Daneyko called an “improved effort” saw the Devils pinned in their zone for the entirety of the penalty kill. Unable to clear the zone, the Sabres utilized their top forwards to shift the puck around, eventually finding Devil-killer Victor Olofsson for his 7th of the season. Continued pressure from the Sabres followed for the rest of the period, but Mackenzie Blackwood kept the Devils in the game as they were only behind 1-0.
The 3rd period saw some renewed effort from the Devils, as they were off to a fast start. For the first five minutes, they were the side playing with intensity, as they pressured the Sabres end in search of the tying goal. This didn’t happen, as three (!) Devils players were unable to take the puck off of Jack Eichel, who just chose to throw the puck at the net, where it bounced up high and was swatted in by youngster Rasmus Aplund. You could almost feel the Devils balloon deflate immediately afterwards, with Taylor Hall proceeding to further punish the team by finding Dylan Cozens up in front to make it 3-0 for the Sabres.
The Devils were clearly frustrated for the rest of the period, as a majority of the players resided themselves to plastering shots at Ullmark, hoping to sneak one through. PK Subban hit the post at one point, while Ryan Murray and Dmitry Kulikov found themselves with some good shots up front. The shutout would remain until the 41 second mark, when Nikita Gusev yet again found himself with a too-little-too-late goal, to give the Devils a consolation goal. Cody Eakin would erase that with .2 seconds left on the clock with an empty netter, and the Devils lost 4-1.
Like the rest of the Devils fans, I am upset. I admittedly was a believer in the early play and thought that this team could become a Cinderalla contender, utilizing youth and gritty play to sneak into the playoffs. Perhaps I am delusional, but I still do see some hope for this Devils team in this season. Behind the veil of sloppy play and inefficiency, Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt look more and more legit in each passing game. I didn’t complain about the referees because I don’t think it would’ve made much of a difference regardless, but the two of them and their constant pressure drew a lot of sticks and shoves from the Sabres, in which almost none of them were called. Furthermore, I still have confidence that the penalty kill struggles and failure to clear the defensive zone isn’t a result of bad defensive quality, but rather some needed adjustments in the Devils’ defensive breakouts. I believe the team has gotten too predictable and needs to explore additional ways to confuse the opponents. Lastly, I understand that Nico Hischier is struggling, but he’s also coming off of a broken leg, with little to no practices in between due to the condensed NHL schedule. He’ll be rusty, but we know how good Nico can be. Give him time as he adjusts to the game again and reserve some judgment until then.
In my last wry thought - Daneyko is definitely right in terms of the penalty kill. A 50% success rate is MUCH better than a 20% success rate! For those who understandably struggle to detect sarcasm in the blog format, know I’m in a lot of pain.
The Game Stats
What needs to change to get the Devils back in form? As much as it pains me to say this, I think some veterans may need to sit so as to introduce the young players like Merkley, Boqvist, Maltsev, and Sharangovich. Do I think those four are better than the veterans? No - but they know they’re fighting for a job, so they’re putting 110% into their play at all times. With the veterans, they feel as if they’re coasting to me. Maybe the Devils can take a page out of the Sabres book a la Jeff Skinner.
Do you think this idea is ridiculous? How did you feel about the game? Do you still think the Devils have a chance at competing? Let me know in the comments below and have a good night.