Just before the game started, it was announced that Jack Eichel would be scratched for the Buffalo Sabres. He did not participate in the morning skate, and did skate during warmups - but was held out of the lineup. The Sabres announced it as a lower-body injury. Tage Thompson, brother of Tyce, got into the lineup as a result.
The Devils started off well, getting offensive zone time on their first few shifts. Jesper Bratt had the first scoring chance of the game about two minutes in on a backhand right in front of Linus Ullmark but did not convert. Johnsson nearly scored on a rebound off a Sami Vatanen slap shot a minute later.
Taylor Hall was sprung for a breakaway just after the missed chance from Johnsson. However, MacKenzie Blackwood stayed with him all the way and made the save. The Devils were on the ice for too long after an offensive zone shift, and nobody could match Hall’s skating the other way. Regardless, there was no harm done.
The Hischier line had a flurry of chances five and a half minutes into the game. Hischier and Bratt made Ullmark go down to the ice, and a rebound got out to Sami Vatanen. Vatanen played it to Jesper Bratt on the goal line, who teed up Nico Hischier for a one-timer. The red light came on, but Ullmark stretched out as far as he could to make the glove save. Ullmark was shaken up on the play but stayed in the game after a stoppage for the trainer to check on him and watch him move around.
Six and a half minutes into the game, P.K. Subban let a pass bounce off his skate from behind the net to Viktor Olofsson. Olofsson backhanded it to Riley Sheahan, who scored. 1-0, Sabres. It was not a good pass from Dmitry Kulikov, but I think that’s just something Subban can’t let happen.
The McLeod line had a great shift with eight minutes to play in the period. Shutting down the Hall-Staal line, Miles Wood set Michael McLeod up for a redirection on the rush, which was turned aside by Ullmark. Nathan Bastian then prolonged the attack for as long as he could behind the net, which resulted in a one-timer attempt for Andreas Johnsson on the line change. That, too, was saved.
After a two-on-one in which Taylor Hall’s shot was saved by Blackwood, the Devils were called for a weak slash by Damon Severson on Taylor Hall after the shot. On the penalty kill, Nico Hischier got an early clear down the ice. After the Sabres set up again, Dmitry Kulikov deflected a puck out of play. After a lengthy board battle behind the net, the puck squirted out to the front of the net, where Blackwood had to make a save and Zajac had to try to knock Tage Thompson away from the puck. Nico Hischier got to the loose puck, and cleared the puck. The Devils successfully killed a penalty.
After one period, the Devils were trailing the Sabres 1-0 while leading in shots 15-11. The Devils also led eight to six in high danger chances.
Attempts 12-2, chances 10-1, with Nico on the ice at 5v5 in P1.— Todd Cordell (@ToddCordell) February 26, 2021
Naturally, Buffalo was the team to score.
Carter Hutton started the second period for the Buffalo Sabres. Ullmark was not on the bench for the start of the period. Jack Hughes got a couple early chances on the first shift of the period, taking three shot attempts on Hutton. The Devils still could not score. On the following shift, Michael McLeod was set up by Ty Smith, fresh off a spin-o-rama move, and his shot from the side of the net was kept out.
A bit over five minutes into the period, Pavel Zacha shimmied around the neutral zone with the puck, evading the Sabres and looking for a pass, finding one to Jesper Bratt who was streaking into the offensive zone. Bratt went back and forth from forehand to backhand, and got around the defender for a shot on Hutton. He went top shelf, tying the game at one. Zacha and Bratt mirrored each other’s shiftiness on the play, and it paid off for the Devils.
Top-Shelf Tally! 1-1.— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) February 26, 2021
: Zacha pic.twitter.com/W20ANgsKJp
Dmitry Kulikov took a minor for slashing a bit over six minutes into the period. P.K. Subban had his shot blocked high in the zone by Tage Thompson, and Curtis Lazar had a breakaway. Lazar was saved by Blackwood, and Kulikov tapped his stick, getting tagged for another weak slash. Nonetheless, the Devils need to know that will be called.
On the penalty kill, the Sabres had a couple of dangerous chances, and pressured the Devils throughout. Kyle Okposo had a great backhand chance right in front of Blackwood late in the kill, and with just eigh seconds left Casey Middlestadt redirected a pass from Eric Staal into the net. Ryan Murray had awful position on the pass, letting it go right in front of Blackwood despite being between Staal and Middlestadt. 2-1, Sabres. Sami Vatanen was high in the zone with Murray all alone in front. When Murray went to play the pass and failed miserably to block it, Sami Vatanen was too far to recover.
After the Devils gave up a power play goal, Nico Hischier took a tripping call with ten minutes and 40 seconds in the period. The Sabres won the initial draw and set up their power play. Sami Vatanen lost the puck in the corner to Taylor Hall about 30 seconds in, failing to clear. However, McLeod and Bastian forced play to the boards, and Vatanen was able to clear down the ice on a second attempt. Damon Severson had a nice block in the second minute, and Jesper Bratt was able to clear off the block. The Devils denied the Sabres on the re-entry, as Kyle Palmieri and Yegor Sharangovich made life difficult for the Sabres late in the power play.
Back at even strength, P.K. Subban shanked a shot, breaking his stick at the point after Nico Hischier gained the zone. The puck got to Ty Smith low in the zone, who shot, but was denied by Hutton. Then, Andreas Johnsson was knocked down to the ice and the Sabres were called for a penalty. Colin Miller went off for hooking.
On the power play, the Devils immediately lost the offensive zone and had to re-enter. Kyle Palmieri got a shot on Hutton which was deflected out of play. The Devils lost the second draw and had to go down the ice for the breakout - and again they only got one attempt before the puck was cleared. Palmieri had hit the post with another shot. On the third re-entry, the Devils were called offside. The Sabres cleared the puck off the draw, and the Devils dumped the puck into the zone. Hutton cleared the puck off the glass and out of play, giving the Devils an offensive zone draw. However, they did nothing with it.
Back at even strength, Jesper Bratt was set up by Michael McLeod for a one-timer in the slot, but the shot went wide. Nico Hischier was tripped at the blue line on a breakout pass, but no call was made. The Devils then got hemmed into their defensive zone, and Nico Hischier was shaken up blocking a slap shot. After a line change, Andreas Johnsson was tripped while gaining the zone, but no call was made again. They finally made a call when there was nothing to call - but they called Brandon Montour for interfering with Jack Hughes behind the net, when Montour fell in front of him.
Nico Hischier came out for the start of the power play, lining up with Palmieri, Hughes, Zacha, and Subban. Palmieri’s first shot was steered into the corner, and the Devils won the puck back. Jack Hughes then missed Pavel Zacha with a pass, the the Devils had to reset. Pavel Zacha finally got a shot 40 seconds in after the Devils missed two cross-zone passes. It was saved, and he got another attempt 20 seconds later that was saved again. With the Devils’ second unit on, Nikita Gusev got a shot on goal that created a rebound, but it was cleared immediately by the Sabres. That ended the power play.
After two periods, the Devils trailed 2-1 while leading in shots 26-23. The last half or so of the period was very disappointing, with the Devils only getting five shots on goal in over 12 minutes of play. The Devils passed up on a few shots trying to be too cute on plays low in the zone - and on multiple occasions gave up the puck when they could have gotten a good shot on goal and instead tried to force an extra pass. Meanwhile:
Per #NHLStats Pavel Zacha is the eighth player this season to have a point streak of eight games or longer.— Craig Seiden (@CraigSeiden) February 26, 2021
13 - Auston Matthews
10 - Connor McDavid
10 - Leon Draisaitl
10 - Mark Sheifele
9 - Brad Marchand
9 - Johnny Gaudreau
9 - Mathew Barzal
8 - Pavel Zacha
Jack Hughes’ line had a pretty good shift to start the period, getting a couple of shots on Hutton. However, they were unable to get into much open space. After the line change, Pavel Zacha had a chance right in front of goal, but his shot was gloved by Hutton as Zacha was knocked down.
Miles Wood drew a penalty call at the end of his shift, as Taylor Hall knocked him with a high stick and was called for a double minor. At the start of the power play, Subban’s slap shot went off the glass, and the Sabres cleared. The Devils failed to get anything going in the first minute, as Kyle Palmieri lost the puck after they had set up again.
After a unit change, Nikita Gusev gained the zone and played the puck to the top of the zone. Gusev, Smith, and Severson played catch up high, and then Gusev played it toward Severson, deflecting off of Sheahan’s skate to Miles Wood, who scored. 2-2 - a power play goal in the first half, so they got another two minutes.
Damon Severson played catch again with Ty Smith before winding up for a shot, which went wide. The Devils won the puck back and continued to pressure the Sabres. Gysev took a shot from the faceoff circle, creating a rebound, but the Sabres cleared the puck. With the first unit back on, Nico Hischier took a big slap shot from the top of the circle that went wide. Jack Hughes got a sharp angle one-timer as the power play expired and was denied. Pavel Zacha, at even strength, fought off a defender on his backside as he was hooked repeatedly, and he forced the puck across to Nico Hischier off of the skate of Matt Irwin, and Nico’s backhand went into the back of the net. 3-2, Devils.
Captains lead and now we do too, 3-2.— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) February 26, 2021
: Zacha pic.twitter.com/OOdTsAoqiR
With the Hischier line back on the ice, they nearly had another goal as Jesper Bratt redirected a pass from Subban right in front of Hutton with a bit over 11 minutes to play. Hutton stood strong. A few minutes later, Kyle Palmieri hit his second post of the game. On the following shift, Yegor Sharangovich set Travis Zajac up to Hutton’s left, and the puck got past Hutton but was cleared from the blue paint.
With five minutes and 46 seconds left to play, the Devils went back to the box, as Zajac was called for high sticking in the corner. He hit Casey Middlestadt in the face while trying to lift his stick. The Devils won the draw, but Kulikov could not get the puck out. Rasmus Dahlin missed Taylor Hall with a pass, and Sami Vatanen cleared the puck. MacKenzie Blackwood made his first save of the penalty kill 59 seconds in on a shot from Dahlin at the point. However, Buffalo tied the game on a redirection from Sam Reinhart with four minutes and 30 seconds to play. Taylor Hall set him up right by Ryan Murray. 3-3.
Jack Hughes nearly scored again following the Sabres goal, and he got right in front of Hutton cutting from the goal line, raising the puck way above the net and out of play. Nico Hischier’s line took the ice, but failed to keep the zone. The Sabres got down the ice, and were called for offsides after the Devils tried to clear the zone. The Devils then got called for offsides as Miles Wood was denied an entry and Bastian was following behind, and took the puck into the zone while Wood was still inside.
After a lengthy offensive zone shift by the Zajac line, the Sabres iced the puck with one minute and 34 seconds to play. Hughes’ line took the ice, and they won the puck. However, the puck was wound out of the zone from behind the net. In the final minute, the Devils were called for icing as Dmitry Kulikov’s pass missed Kyle Palmieri. The Devils were able to clear the puck down from the red line, avoiding the icing after exiting the defensive zone. The Sabres were unable to get another shot in the period, and the game went to overtime.
At three-on-three, Lindy Ruff sent out Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban, and Kyle Palmieri to match up against Riley Sheahan, Rasmus Dahlin, and Sam Reinhart. Hughes won the draw, and the Devils gained the zone. Kyle Palmieri lost the puck on a bad pass from Hughes, and Viktor Olofsson gained the zone for the Sabres. Buffalo retreated to the neutral zone, and Dahlin lost the puck after a re-entry. The Devils changed for Bratt, Smith, and Zacha. On his first shot of the shift, Pavel Zacha saved the game for the Devils with a quick wrist shot past Hutton off a drop pass from Jesper Bratt. 4-3, Devils - and the two points.
Can’t be stopped.— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) February 26, 2021
: Smith pic.twitter.com/5fncGyGH2M
The Opposition Opinion: Die By The Blade will have the recap for the Sabres side.
A Career Night for Pavel Zacha
With his first career overtime goal, Pavel Zacha earned his third career three-point game. He was at his best with the puck tonight - strong, skilled, and creative. His shot did not result in goals in regulation despite numerous attempts, but his willingness to put the puck on goal paid dividends in overtime. After the Devils had coughed up their lead late in the third period, I was pretty dubious about their overtime chances. Zacha did well to end it early before Buffalo could get an attack going.
This is the hottest Zacha has ever been pic.twitter.com/tzmGr2ODYt— CJ Turtoro (@CJTDevil) February 26, 2021
Will Zacha fall back to earth? Maybe - probably to some extent. But Zacha seems to be beyond his early-career production droughts. After being dropped to the fourth line earlier this season, he’s now thriving next to Nico Hischier. If Lindy Ruff just keeps them together, Pavel Zacha will be a legitimate contributor to the success of the New Jersey Devils. His 12 points in 15 games leads the New Jersey Devils. On an 82-game pace, that comes out to about 66 points. Again - will his spurious pace continue? Probably not - but he’s in a good position to produce all season at wing.
Could you imagine this play coming from Pavel Zacha a year ago? How about two or three? It’s great to see how far he seems to have come, and I think he is finally in a system that he can play his way in. It must be nice to finally play for a coach that believes in him.
“We played some hard hockey. We didn’t want this game to slip away. Overall, to get the two points was crucial for us.”— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) February 26, 2021
Hear from Lindy Ruff after tonight’s important win. #NJDevils | @UnibetUS pic.twitter.com/4mEZJAUiBc
Nico and Jesper on the Board
That line was the best on the ice for either team tonight. Bratt, Nico, and Zacha played nine minutes at five-on-five together, leading the way with a 14-5 corsi differential, nine to three shot differential, and 0.77-0.23 xG differential. That’s a 73.68 CF% and 76.7 xGF%. On top of the Jack Hughes line getting shot attempts left and right - Hughes himself took a career-high 11 even strength attempts tonight (with eight on goal) - the Hischier line working makes the Devils top six very good.
Jesper Bratt has been a menace all season. He had 20 shots on 31 attempts coming into tonight in just eight games - and he had another five shots tonight. That 4% shot percentage looks pretty bad - but it won’t last. Jesper Bratt has a great, accurate shot - and he’s never shot the puck at this pace in his career. As for Nico Hischier, I think it’s fair to say he’s shaken off the rust. I was wondering if he might have a rest day coming up with the packed schedule, but that no longer seems necessary. He was active in all zones of play and was his strongest on the puck tonight. He had four shots tonight - and could have had multiple goals. Given the way this line is playing, I’m sure we’ll see a few multi-goal games from them this season.
Miles Wood Getting Back Into It
Miles Wood has been held out of the scoresheet for a while now. He had a five-game pointless streak coming into tonight, and his goal tonight keeps him in the team lead in that category with six in 15 games. The fourth line was not at their best today as the only Devils forwards to be below even in corsi differential and the only Devils skaters not breaking even in xG differential. However, they were tasked with a lot of defensive zone draws, and I think they need to share some more of those with Travis Zajac - who was looking more like himself tonight. Wood still tried to make things happen tonight, nearly creating a goal for McLeod and putting on backchecking displays with his speed and effort for the Devils. Wood is still looking good - but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to start him in the offensive zone a little more often. Sometimes it’s better to see how he can break up a play on the backcheck than to see the Devils fail to get a clean pass to him out of the defensive zone.
Ty Smith and Damon Severson were very good tonight. Smith in particular made some nifty moves and passes throughout the game, and they ran a great power play with Nikita Gusev on the Hall double-minor. However, Dmitry Kulikov and P.K. Subban looked pretty out of sync - and while Ryan Murray and Sami Vatanen played well together at even strength, they are a terrible penalty kill pairing. Murray in particular looked completely lost defending the area around Blackwood, letting two passes go right by him for netfront and netside goals. Part of these issues is making use of players in situations they are not gifted in. 4:46 of Sami Vatanen’s 16:42 of ice time tonight came shorthanded - that seems backwards to me while P.K. Subban still struggles on the power play. Vatanen was decent with Dmitry Kulikov - as they only allowed three shots in 3:45 of shorthanded time together, with only one high-danger chance against. However, in just 1:01 with Ryan Murray, Vatanen was on the ice for three shots and a goal on two high-danger chances.
Dmitry Kulikov and Sami Vatanen showed signs of being great fits for each other the first time they played together. They were the best penalty killing pairing tonight - and even though I dislike using Vatanen there, the Devils are short of options. Ryan Murray was better at even strength tonight but was an atrocious playing the passing lanes. The Devils might want to consider using Ty Smith in those third period penalty kills while defending a lead or preserving a tie - because Smith has adapted well to the NHL game and can definitely deflect passes better than what we saw from Murray tonight.
What did you think of tonight’s game? Did you write them off early? Were you expecting a late third period loss? Were you expecting Pavel Zacha to be the hero? How did you feel about the top six play tonight? Should Ruff reshuffle his defense again - maybe let Butcher draw in? How did you feel about the Devils’ effort after the power play goals against? Did you think the penalty kill showed signs of being better, or do the results still just speak for themselves? How did you feel watching the power play units? Do you think Jesper Bratt not being on the power play is an oversight (while the Devils play two defensemen on a unit and let Subban quarterback the first one) that should be corrected? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.