Kicking off the ‘excitement’ if you will is some Buffalo Sabre friendly fire— Taylor Hall falls and takes a puck to the mouth in front of the Devils’ net from a slap shot from the point. He’s up and off the ice quickly but dripping blood like a cherry slushie machine. (Spoiler alert: its nothing serious, and he’s back on the ice for the second period)
In case you couldn’t tell from the location of that injury— we’re spending a whole lot of time on the defensive zone. We can’t get it out of the zone, and when we do, we can’t get much going in the offensive zone. Bad combo. We’re playing from the bench again, where getting into the offensive zone means one person carries the puck in while everyone else changes, the one person can’t manage to keep the zone throughout the whole change, no one is in position to help maintain it so the puck comes back out and we’re hemmed in the defensive zone again. Rinse and repeat.
We manage to get a face-off in the offensive zone, but we get just one shot before the Sabres pick up the rebound and back the other way we go.
Finally more than halfway through the period we get an actual opportunity in the offensive zone that results in a scoring chance in the form of a backdoor shot from Bratt, and then a penalty drawn for tripping him.
The Devils new powerplay unit of Zacha, Palmieri, Kuokkanen, Gusev, and Severson goes to work and I’ll be honest— it looks EXCELLENT. There’s rapid puck movement, everyone’s moving their feet and changing up their positioning, they’re taking one-timers from various locations on the ice and forcing the Sabres penalty kill out of position. A clear by the Sabres brings on the second iteration of the powerplay, which is notably less successful, but I’ll take half a great powerplay over two minutes of a mediocre one any day. That unit consisted of Hughes, Zajac, Sharangovitch, still Kuokkanen for some reason, and Subban.
The good powerplay gives the Devils momentum, and waste it they do not. Back in the offensive zone, Damon Severson settles the play and passes to Yegor Sharangovitch above the hash marks. Rango rips a wrist shot past Johansson to put the Devils on top 1-0.
Another day, another obligatory SharanGOALvich tweet pic.twitter.com/oVPpICfP9R— Devils on MSG+ Tonight (@DevilsMSGN) March 16, 2021
Unfortunately the Sabres respond and Kulikov gets a little overexuberant on the defense, and takes a holding penalty while trying to seal off Curtis Lazaar. Fortunately, our usually awful penalty kill is also looking a little better today, and they hold off the Sabres until the period expires, leaving just 15 seconds left on the penalty kill for the Sabres to work with at the start of the second period.
The Devils make short work of the remaining seconds of the Sabres powerplay, and start off the period looking strong and making their presence known in the Buffalo zone. This time it’s the Devils picking off forced passes and returning to the zone, a welcome change from the depressing decline of games over the past couple weeks and also most of the first period. The Sabres get a run into the Devils zone and almost immediately draw another penalty, this time from Sami Vatanen for interference. Back to the penalty kill we go!
The Sabres manage some zone time but their powerplay doesn’t accomplish much during that time. Bastian picks off the puck from midair and that all but does it for the second man advantage for Buffalo.
Vatanen comes out of the box but the Sabres aren’t done with their advantage just yet. They keep the momentum rolling and Tobias Reider finds a shot that just beats the glove of Blackwood to tie the game at 1.
The Devils get a chance immediately following the puck drop, but somehow it doesn’t go in. Back the other way and the Sabres find the Devils trying to change and get themselves in on a 2 on 1. Jeff Skinner gets the pass and rips it off the crossbar and in. 2-1 Buffalo.
RIP to that good, high energy offensive play that lasted for all of... 10 minutes.
Or maybe not!
Coming in off the bench, Kuokkanen gets the puck in the zone long enough for the remaining Devils to set up. He gets the puck back to Vatanen who rips a good shot that beats Johansson to tie the game for the Devils at 2.
The Sabres are apparently frustrated because off the ensuing face-off Jeff Skinner tries to manhandle Nathan Bastian, which looks kind of like a cranky toddler trying fight an older sibling, and they’re both still bickering as they head to the box for coincidental roughings. Bastian seems generally amused by the whole situation.
Subban tries a stretch pass to spring Sharangovitch in the waning minutes of the period but it’s just too far for him to get control on with Miller hot on his tail. The period ends with the game still tied at 2
Taylor Hall decides to start off the first period by going after PK Subban, which is an interesting side conversation I’d like to know more about. 6’7” Tage Thompson, brother of Devils prospect Tyce Thompson, gets in the middle and settles that before anything develops further.
The Devils pick off a pass at the top of the offensive zone and get a rush going the other way. Colin Miller took offense to the whole situation and loosed a two-handed slash at the only thing he could reach—the hip area of Pavel Zacha. Miller takes a seat for 2 while Zacha has to be helped off the ice and limps down the tunnel.
The Devils powerplay has been better for sure, and it capitalizes here. The key? PK Subban got the puck at the point and passed it! Jesper Bratt picks up the pass high in the zone and takes a shot that Wood is able to tip past Johansson to make the Sabres pay for their penalty. Devils take the lead 3-2.
And the second look that shows the tip a bit better:
Wood you take a look at that pic.twitter.com/kJQCojfI1a— Devils on MSG+ Tonight (@DevilsMSGN) March 17, 2021
Barely a minute after the goal expires the penalty and Jack Hughes races into the zone and draws another penalty from the Sabres, this time for hooking. Better news—Zacha is able to return to rejoin the powerplay for this one.
The powerplay again looks excellent. The puck is moving, players are moving, the Sabres are moving out of position. Unfortunately, Subban didn’t learn from the success of the last powerplay in which passing the dang puck actually worked, and decides to take a shot from the point again. Instead his stick breaks and he gives up what’s essentially a breakaway with a stickless Subban trying to defend. Somehow between Subban shoving and Blackwood being Blackwood they manage to prevent it from becoming a shorthanded goal, but it does kill the remainder of the penalty.
The Sabres get another breakaway chance just over a minute later as Tobias Reider gets out with a step on Vatanen, but Sami plays it beautifully with a reach around sweep at the last second to cleanly eliminate the threat without drawing a penalty.
The Devils face a tough choice in the remaining ten minutes of this game— take the offensive chances to try for that nice two-goal cushion, or play it as safe as possible to avoid letting Buffalo tie the game.
The Sabres nearly get the tie on a broken play down in the zone but it’s well defended if not somewhat chaotically and the Devils get the puck back out.
With just under two minutes remaining, the Sabres pull their goalie and bring 6 skaters into the Devils zone. The puck movement is excellent, leading to a scramble in front with 30 seconds remaining that Blackwood has to make some unbelievable saves to keep the lead—AND HE DOES! The Devils get the clear and ice the puck, ending the scramble.
The Sabres decide to use their timeout, helpfully giving the tired Devils stuck on the ice a quick break. Puck drops for a chaotic 30 second battle which sees Miles Wood come inches from an empty net goal, but the Sabres run out of time and the Devils break the losing streak and the retro jersey curse.
Gusev at the point on the first powerplay unit was a power move. He quarterbacked the play even more than Severson did, contributing to the excellent puck movement throughout their time on the man advantage. Goose has been making a strong case these last couple games to keep him in the lineup despite being pretty heavily sheltered especially in today’s game (he almost had more PP time than 5v5), but I for one am convinced he deserves the chances to continue. Even if only for his contributions to what has been an awful special teams unit until recently, though I think he can do more than that.
Kuokkanen is continuing to be one of the best players on the ice, which is not something I expected to say coming into this season. Only player on the ice for 2 goals for and 0 against, excellent CF% and xGF, an assist, and an overall solid game for the rookie. He also tied with Palmieri for second most scoring chances on the team with 4.
Sharangovitch also had a great game. He had four takeaways through the first two periods. The only 4 of the entire team. He finished with 4 out of a total 7 on the team, as well as a goal and three scoring chances.
Mackenzie Blackwood finally has a game in which he doesn’t have to give up 3 or more goals, and he finally looked like himself again. After the game Cangy reported that Blackwoodfeels he has reached the point where he is back to himself and past covid, which is great news for him and the Devils organization. A healthy Blackwood is a brick wall, and the Devils have sorely missed his usual performance in the crease.
Wood you believe how good Wood has been? (I’m so sorry I had to). He did still end up in the net early in the game, but didn’t even draw a penalty from it. He seems to have perfected his identity as a player— speedster and net-front agitator, but not a goon, and it’s suiting him perfectly. His tip-in for the game-winning goal keeps him on top as the team’s scoring leader with 9 goals. He finished tonight’s game with a whopping SIX individual scoring chances and 5 shots.
Jesper Bratt has been another bright spot throughout the season, and didn’t disappoint again tonight. He led the team in CF% with 68%, created the game-winning goal, and has been making a strong impact on both the powerplay and the penalty kill.
The Subban - Kulikov pairing had one of their best games yet. They led the team with a massive xGF differential of 77 and 76% and 65 and 66% CF% respectively.
The Smith - Severson pairing, unfortunately, had one of their worst games yet. It wasn’t horrible by any stretch, but they were far from their usual dominance. Their usage wasn’t totally out of the ordinary but they did have a number of defensive zone starts for a pairing that’s preferably an offensive powerhouse, so that may have been part of it but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on in the coming games.
How did the Devils turn this game into a win tonight? Who impressed you, and who didn’t? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and thanks for reading!