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Game Preview #26: New Jersey Devils vs. Buffalo Sabres

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Tonight, the New Jersey Devils will again attempt to win their first home game since January. Their opponents are the Buffalo Sabres, who have not won a game since they beat the Devils in Newark back in February. This game preview goes over a battle of the basement in the East Division.

NHL: FEB 25 Devils at Sabres
Can a game between two bottom feeders be a must-win game? I think so.
Photo by John Crouch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Tonight, the New Jersey Devils, who have not won at home since January 24, will host the Buffalo Sabres, who have not won a game since they beat the Devils in Newark on February 23. Can a battle between the two worst teams in the East Division be a must-win game? I argue so in this game preview.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils vs. the Buffalo Sabres (SBN Blog: Die by the Blade)

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcasts: TV - MSG+, MSG-B; Digital Audio - The Devils Hockey Network (Radio.com)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted the Islanders for the second consecutive evening and the third straight game against them. Scott Wedgewood tended to the net and did as well as he could after the first period. In the first, though, Sebastian Aho (not the forward, the defenseman) fired a long shot that hit off Kieffer Bellows and went past Wedgewood to open the game’s scoring. A miracle occurred a little later when the Devils managed to score a power play goal. Yes, a power play goal. Janne Kuokkanen slammed in a rebound off a tipped shot by Kyle Palmieri to tie it up. It seemed like the tie would stand until the very end of the period. Brock Nelson shot a puck into traffic and it snuck through with a second left on the clock to make it 1-2 going into intermission. The Devils did rebound, though. The Islanders did their best to catch the Devils in awkward positions or out of position in their own end, but Wedgewood was fantastic in shutting them down. Closer to the end of the period, the Devils got another one past Ilya Sorokin. Yegor Sharangovich ripped one in from the high slot to make it 2-2. The Isles pressed harder in the third, but Wedgewood denied them. And it seemed that the Devils would go up 3-2 on a long shot from Ryan Murray. Only for that goal to be waved off due to an incredibly light interference call on Nathan Bastian. Chico on the radio called it the worst call of the season. Dano on TV said it was horrible. The People Who Matter knew it was a bad call. The Devils killed the penalty - killed them all again against the Isles - and overtime was needed. Early in over time, Pavel Zacha gained the zone, dropped a pass to Jesper Bratt in coverage, and then found P.K. Subban open to Sorokin’s right. Subban ripped a shot in and the Devils won. Until Toronto buzzed in for an offside review. Somehow, someway, the decision makers in Toronto saw that Bratt, who was at least 40 feet away from Zacha’s zone entry, was barely over the blueline. Offside was ruled and so the goal went away. Nelson took a penalty in OT and so the Devils iced a foursome of Nikita Gusev, Palmieri, Jack Hughes, and Zacha for a 4-on-3. While shots were made, Gusev did stick out like a sore thumb in a bad way, Palmieri was next to the net and missed on a tap-in attempt at the end of it, and so the Devils failed to win it there. In the shootout, Gusev did score, Anthony Beauvillier tied it up in the third frame, and Oliver Wahlstrom won it in the fourth. The Devils were robbed of a win in the 2-3 loss. Needless to say, I agree with Chris’ recap of the game.

The Last Sabres Game: The Sabres played last night at home against Washington. The Sabres did not have Jack Eichel or Linus Ullmark due to injury. And the Sabres entered the game winless in their last ten games. The futility would be extended to eleven games as the Capitals bodied the Sabres for sixty minutes. The Sabres did hold off the Capitals for about 18:45 of the first period. At 18:46 (also three seconds after Rasmus Dahlin served a hooking minor), Evgeny Kuznetsov scored the first of many against Hutton. The second period saw the Capitals run away with the game. An early period score from Nicklas Backstrom. A goal from Richard Panik about three minutes later. Daniel Sprong made it 4-0 with less than five minutes to go in the period. Would the Capitals stop? No. Garnet Hathaway made it a five-spot in the third period. And 16:21 into the period, Alex Ovechkin scored his 717st career regular season goal, tying Phil Esposito on the all-time list. The Sabres were creamed 6-0 by Washington. They are now winless in eleven games - the number of games they played since they beat the Devils in New Jersey back in February. Melissa Burgess has this recap at Die by the Blade and it is clear: no one is happy in Buffalo about their hockey team.

The Last Devils-Sabres Game: Remember winning? The Devils won in dramatic fashion on February 26 in Buffalo. It was by no means easy. The scoring started when a bad pass by Dmitry Kulikov hit off P.K. Subban’s skates and went out in front. The puck was recovered by Victor Olofsson and passed it across to Riley Sheahan to make it 1-0. The Devils did not score in the first period, but they came incredibly close when Linus Ullmark made a stunning grab on a Nico Hischier shot from the slot. The issue is that Ullmark hurt himself on that play. Carter Hutton replaced him for the second period. The Devils would get an equalizer under seven minutes in. Pavel Zacha deftly handled the puck to spring Jesper Bratt from the right side of the neutral zone. Bratt made Matt Irwin look silly on a deke and ripped a top-shelf shot past Hutton to make it 1-1. Unfortunately, Kulikov took a penalty shortly after and the Sabres’ power play went to work. With Ryan Murray out of his position and Sami Vatanen protecting no one in front of him, Eric Staal hooked up Casey Mittlestadt with a tap-in on Mackenzie Blackwood’s flank with just eight seconds left in the kill. The Devils were down 1-2. But in the third period, they would get a big opportunity to tie it up. Taylor Hall high-sticked Miles Wood and drew some blood. Four minutes were assessed. Within the first two minutes, Wood put in a puck that came to him off of Sheahan’s skate for a PPG equalizer. After the second minor ended, Zacha kept the puck in on offense and drove deeper into the zone. He dragged a pass across the slot, it hit off Irwin, and went right to Nico Hischier. Hischier backhanded it low amid the chaos and it went in to make it 3-2. The Devils were now leading and could hold on, right? Wrong. Travis Zajac took a high-sticking minor and so the Sabres had a power play in the later half of the third period. It ended early as Sam Reinhart tipped in a Taylor Hall shot to make it 3-3. While the Devils tried to end it in regulation - Jack Hughes tried - overtime was needed. Fortunately, the Devils owned the overtime period and it did not take long for an ending. Ty Smith skated the puck to the redline and dropped a pass back for Bratt. Bratt gained the zone and shifted to his left, which drew attention from all three Sabres. Bratt dropped a pass as he cutted left for Zacha to pick up. Zacha took a touch and ripped a shot past Hutton to end the game. The Devils won 4-3 in overtime. Chris’ recap of the win is here. For the other side, Chad DiDominicis had this short recap at Die by the Blade for a Buffalo-based reaction.

The Goal: Just do not be stupid and do not make things easy for Buffalo! That’s it! On paper, this is a favorable game for the Devils. Buffalo played last night, although what they were playing may be debatable. In reality, it is even more favorable. They are without their top goaltender as Ullmark was ruled out for about a month from the last Devils-Sabres game. They are without Jack Eichel due to injury. Their head coach, Ralph Kreuger, may be a dead man walking behind the bench. Local media is so low on this team, a local newspaper ranked the Sabres below Seattle in their power rankings as per r/hockey on Reddit. They have been absolutely terrible this season and they have not won a single game since the Sabres last came to the Rock. They are winless in eleven with a record of 0-9-2 since that win on February 23. There is not going to be a better time to play an opponent this bad. If the Devils can stop their self-inflicted errors in any of the three zones, stay calm and collected off the puck to avoid penalties, and just play a smart game, then they should win this game. Tonight should be the night the home winless streak ends. Tonight should be time the Devils win a game outright, regardless any nonsense from the officials on the rink or in Toronto. Don’t be dumb! Be smart and you’ll win, Devils!

Devils I Want to See Keeping Up the Good Work: From the weekend set against the Islanders, Lindy Ruff and his staff maintained the forward lines of Jack Hughes, Andreas Johnsson, and Jesper Bratt; and Travis Zajac, Janne Kuokkanen, and Yegor Sharangovich. These two lines did fairly well in the run of play with the Zajac line being more productive. I hope to see them kept together for tonight’s game as I do not think adjustments are needed. It may not be ideal for some like Pavel Zacha, but I did not see anything from the last two games that says to me that they have to change.

On defense, two names come to mind. P.K. Subban had a very good game on Saturday against the Isles. While the run of play was not as positive when Subban was on the ice on Sunday, he was still contributing elsewhere. He set up Sharangovich’s goal in the second period and scored an overtime goal that the Situation Room in Ontario took away for the most ticky-tack of reasons. I want to see Subban continue to do good things out there. Likewise, I want to see Dmitry Kulikov continue what he did this weekend. Dmitry Kulikov had a great weekend in the run of play. He was more astute on the puck and in coverage. There were fewer brain-farts from him, which is always appreciated. It redeemed him after a horrible performance on Thursday. The Devils have been especially frustrating as of late with a number of goals against coming at the cost of some really stupid decisions in their own end. So seeing defenders not do that is something to praise.

I am also encouraged by the goaltenders. Mackenzie Blackwood and Scott Wedgewood did as well as you could expect from a goaltender. They are not giving up a lot of bad or questionable goals. They have been victimized by the men in front of them whose part of their jobs are to support the goaltenders. Whether Ruff goes with Wedgewood after his sterling second and third period performances on Sunday or Blackwood from his work on Saturday is fine with me. The goaltending play has been good enough to get results. The lack of them are more with the skaters than anything else.

Lastly, special teams was a net positive. The power play still has a ton of work to do to be seen as half-of-squat. The penalty kill did quite well overall against the Islanders. Now they need to show they can kill penalties against other teams. Buffalo has converted against the Devils’ penalty kill before, so their power play units may relish the thought of getting some badly-needed success this evening. The Devils need to recall what they did against the Islanders and apply it tonight. I want special teams to be a net positive again, if only to improve the Devils’ chances of winning this game.

Do Better, Please: There are a number of Devils I want to see more from tonight.

At forward, I want to see some more support from the ones not centered by Hughes or Zajac. Kyle Palmieri continues to underwhelm as a veteran player. Nikita Gusev drew back into the lineup for Sunday’s game and contributed little but the team’s first (and only) shootout goal of the season. The somewhat-vaunted “BMW” line really did not do so well on Saturday as their highlight was Bellows torching Nathan Bastian on the eventual game winning goal. They were split up on Sunday as Michael McLeod gave way for Gusev’s return to the lineup. It did not yield many gains either. If Ruff & Co. wants to re-unite them, then that is fine. They just need to do a lot more than just skate about, not create much, and get the occasional praise for minimal work from Ken Daneyko on broadcasts.

On defense, Sami Vatanen has been rather bad for the Devils. He was a pylon on what would be the eventual game winning goal on Saturday. The Islanders also enjoyed their ice time against the veteran defenseman on Sunday despite not scoring against him. With Will Butcher on the COVID-19 Protocol List, there are not many viable alternatives for Vatanen. This game against Buffalo may be the best chance to try out Matt Tennyson or even Josh Jacobs. If that does not happen, then I implore Vatanen to at least be decent out there.

For non-Vatanen defensemen, I want more from Damon Severson. His performance on Saturday was not too bad except for the major mistake of leaving Bellows in a 2-on-2 rush against the Devils to take Mat Barzal and fail to take the puck from him. That cost the Devils a crucial goal. On Sunday, the Isles really enjoyed their time against Severson. As much stick as he gets from some of the People Who Matter, Severson has been much more effective in both ends of the rink this season. I believe he can be better because he has been not that long ago. Again, he just needs to be smart, be mindful on all shifts, and avoid taking big risks. At a minimum, that should cut down on those big moments where he ends up looking bad, the Devils give up a goal, and the fans remember only those moments even if he otherwise did a lot of other good things.

What Could Buffalo Look Like?: Per The Athletic’s John Vogl prior to yesterday’s game, this was how they came out against the Capitals:

As Hutton faced all six goals against, I would guess at Jonas Johansson getting the start tonight. The graphic with Vogl’s tweet should tell you that is no rational reason to fear Jonas Johansson in net. He has been real bad as the Sabres’ #3 goalie this season, now the #2 goalie in the wake of Ullmark’s injury. The Devils should be firing at will at the Sabres. Which should be possible as the Sabres have had the fifth highest SA/60 in 5-on-5 play (33.38) since February 23 per Natural Stat Trick. That means the goaltenders have been very busy. The Devils should keep them busy.

The dangerous line, on paper, would be that Eric Staal line flanked by Victor Olofsson and Sam Reinhart. Olofsson and Reinhart have been somewhat productive during this miserable run by the Sabres. They have scored two (one each) power play goals out of the team’s three in this stretch. (Casey Mittlestadt had the third, which also came against NJ) They are the only players who have a shooting percentage above 10% and have taken more than ten shots in this timeframe too. given that they were shutout yesterday, the Sabres may move things around. Taylor Hall has not been quiet with 29 shots and six points either. By no means should the Devils act like he is, say, Adam Hall. But the most threatening line that would be the one with the two top scorers on it. If they are together, then Ruff and his staff must set up an appropriate match-up for them. And the PK units need to be aware when they are out there too. Especially Olofsson, who is really good at making himself an option on the weakside and ripping shots off passes.

You may notice Cody Eakin was not in Vogl’s tweet. He was a healthy scratch in the Capitals game. Seeing that the Sabres were shutout by six goals, Eakin may come in for someone. Perhaps for the previously exiled Jeff Skinner (that is only my guess, I have no idea if that would happen). Either way, he would be a fresher face and that could help as the Sabres are in a back-to-back situation. I suppose if you need an ‘X’ factor from the Sabres, he would be it. Assuming he does draw in at all.

One Last Thought: If the Devils really want to disappoint, enrage, and - worse - drive away the fans, then they should enter this game and just mail in a lame effort like we have seen in some of the home games in this 11-game winless run. If they play more like they did on the weekend where they were competitive and lost in close games, then more would appreciate it. But if there is such a thing as a must-win for Devils team with not much to play for but another re-building season, then this is it. This is the one to win at this point.

Beating Buffalo should go a long way of avoiding last in the East, which the Devils can sell as some kind of progress over last season, when they finished dead last in the Metropolitan. It will put at least a temporary end to the home woes. It will give all involved a bit more confidence and a boost of morale heading into two tougher games against Pittsburgh on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. The Devils embarrassed themselves in the last game in Newark against Buffalo. They can and should seek revenge tonight. They need to win this game to at least show the People Who Matter that have not checked out of this season that there is something worth sticking around for. Losing to a Buffalo squad in total disarray may be a final straw for fan interest in 2021. For us, please win this dang game, Devils.

Your Take: The Devils are entering a game where they have their best chance to end their slide at the Rock. Will they beat the Buffalo Sabres? What do you think the Devils need to do to out-score the Sabres? Who do you expect on the Devils to play an important role tonight? Who on the Sabres, if anyone, concerns you? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s game in the comments. Thank you for reading.