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Devils, Led By Hughes and Zacha, Fend Off Sabres in 6-3 Win

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Don’t let the score fool you - the Devils could have lost this one. A good third period effort prevented that.

New Jersey Devils v Buffalo Sabres
Boqvist! A goal - his first of the year!
Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

First Period

Aaron Dell gave up his first goal of the game 53 seconds in, on a redirection goal for Viktor Olofsson. Dmitry Kulikov went to the corner, and P.K. Subban did not cover the pass across. 1-0, Sabres, and another lapsed pass coverage for Subban.

Jesper Boqvist drew a penalty a minute and a half into the period, as he fought off Cody Eakin and one-handed a pass to a cutting Ty Smith, who forced Linus Ullmark to make a save from the slot.

On the power play, Ty Smith shot from high in the zone 30 seconds with Andreas Johnsson setting a screen and Pavel Zacha in the slot. Johnsson kicked backward at the puck, and Zacha picked it up for a backhand rebound goal. 1-1, and a good, quick power play. Smith and Bratt got the assists.

Michael McLeod drew a penalty shortly after the goal, as a pass to Tage Thompson right in front of Dell bounced off the stick high. McLeod collected, took it around the net, and drew a hold from Thompson. The same power play unit took the ice, with Zacha, Johnsson, Hughes, Bratt, and Smith.

Pavel Zacha created a rebound a half minute in from the faceoff circle, but the Devils did not jump on it. The Devils circled the puck back to Zacha, and he ripped a shot from the high end of the faceoff circle under Ullmark’s glove to make it a 2-1 game. This was another quick power play, and another good result. Smith and Bratt, yet again, had the assists.

The Zacha line at five-on-five continued to buzz, as Pavel Zacha had another chance to score with a shot from the slot, after Miles Wood and Jesper Bratt gained the zone and circled around the corner. Michael McLeod on the following shift nearly created a goal on a centering pass for Tyce Thompson, and created some trouble around the net. At the end of their possession, he set up Mikhail Maltsev with a cross-ice pass. Maltsev had Ullmark down, and should have scored, but sailed the shot.

Dmitry Kulikov took the first penalty of the game for the Devils, as he did not keep his stick in control and tripped up Rasmus Asplund. The Devils used Michael McLeod and Yegor Sharangovich on the kill, and Damon Severson got a clear right off the draw. The Devils retained puck possession, and Michael McLeod got off a shot from the slot that Ullmark had to save. He was tripped up on the shot, but the referee ignored it. Game management, and all. The Devils continued to do well on the kill, as Dell made a single glove save in the first minute. Andreas Johnsson and Michael McLeod got clears in the second minute, and the Devils easily survived the two minutes.

Jack Hughes made it a 3-1 game with four minutes to play, as he fanned on a shot from the low slot on a feed from the corner. He recollected nonetheless, and ripped it high, glove-side past Ullmark. This broke his goal drought, and should be good to end his frustration. This was also the Devils’ first even strength goal of the game, showing they could give a complete effort for once. Janne Kuokkanen and Yegor Sharangovich got the assists, as Kuokkanen made a great pass out of the corner.

The Devils nearly gave one up on the rush, as Olofsson threw the puck across for a driving Brandon Montour. Montour’s redirection went wide. Michael McLeod was covering Montour as Severson went toward Olofsson, but McLeod was only on Montour’s back.

At the end of the period, Janne Kuokkanen was tripped in the neutral zone, but he would have ran out of time anyway. The Devils went to intermission up 3-1, while the shots were 14-13 in the Devils’ favor. At even strength, the Devils had a 51.72 CF% (15-14), but trailed in shots 7-12. They also trailed in even strength xGF% at 47.19% (0.55-0.62), while their game total (62.12%) was much better.

Second Period

Tyce Thompson got the Devils’ first good chance of the period, as he had a chance from a tight angle close on Ullmark about two minutes in. The save was made, however. Play seemed slower in the second, with a lot of passes that failed to create space for chances on either side.

Jesper Bratt created the first truly dangerous chance of the period past the three minute mark of the period. Zacha hit him with a short pass at the Devils’ defensive zone blueline, and Bratt flew like a jet through the zones, culminating in a power move that yielded a shot that went wide. The Hughes line followed this up with a great shift that almost resulted in a netside goal for P.K. Subban, who jammed away at a loose puck.

The Sabres created a four-on-two rush, but no passes were made and the Sabres crashed the net too hard, knocking the net off before Dell was sure to have covered the initial shot.

Jesper Boqvist had a good shift six minutes into the period, taking the offensive zone by himself and forcing Ullmark to make a glove svae. Ullmark didn’t cover, and Boqvist kept up the forecheck by himself. After the Devils regained possession after a failed stretch pass, Boqvist ripped a shot from beyond the high slot that either deflected or just sailed high.

Pavel Zacha very nearly completed a hat trick halfway into the period, as he jumped on a rebound to the side of the net. His shot was blocked by a diving Sabre, and Zacha proceeded to get tagged for an interference penalty in the neutral zone.

On the penalty kill, the Sabres had to regain the zone after losing it right off the draw. They entered the offensive zone 20 seconds into the power play, but Dmitry Kulikov cleared it 30 seconds in. Aaron Dell made a save nearly a minute and a half into the kill, and after the following draw he gave up a rebound goal to Tage Thompson. Dell was well out of position after making a left pad save, sliding over waayyy too far on a Montour one-timer. He had no chance on the follow-up. 3-2.

Miles Wood then took a penalty for tripping Colin Miller behind the net. The Sabres set up right off the draw, and cycled around the perimeter before Rasmus Ristolainen cut from the goal line to plow everyone over - but Dell made the save and the Devils cleared. The Devils took the puck away on the forecheck, but Andreas Johnsson could not handle a pass from Pavel Zacha and the Sabres regained possession. However, P.K. Subban got successive clears to hurt the Sabres’ second-half effort. In the final ten seconds, Aaron Dell made a save at the side of the net but could not find the rebound, and Andreas Johnsson helped the defense by skating in to clear the loose puck.

The Sabres were then called for a penalty, as Nick Merkley was high-sticked by Steven Fogarty. Zacha lost the draw, and Ty Smith went back to collect. He dipped through two defenders, but still dropped the pass back. The Devils then failed to keep possession in the offensive zone. The Devils finally got a shot from Zacha 70 seconds into the power play, but it was stopped by Ullmark. Bratt made a great backhand pass to set it up. The Devils’ second unit was not great, as the Sabres cleared multiple times against them. The Sabres’ penalty kill was aggressive and effective at cutting off the Devils’ board plays.

Aaron Dell continued to have a bad night, as he gave Jeff Skinner the entire net to shoot at off another rebound. A shot from Reinhart was saved, but bounced off a Devil right to Skinner. Dell couldn’t track the puck, and Skinner tied the game at three-a-side.

Jack Hughes took a sharp angle shot at the start of the final unit that rose above the net. Then, Ty Smith set up Vatanen at the top of the zone, whose wrist shot was nearly redirected into the net. The Devils had the Sabres hemmed in, but Sami Vatanen held onto the puck for way too long despite a Sabre missing their stick, letting time expire before the Devils could get another shot off.

At the end of two, the Devils blew their lead despite putting up another 13 shots on net. On the game, they led the Sabres in shots 27-25.

Third Period

The Buffalo Sabres had possession for much of the first couple minutes, pinning the Devils back a couple times before a Devil cleared the puck off the glass and out of play. After the draw, Miles Wood sped down the ice with the puck, giving the Devils an offensive zone possession. However, Ty Smith turned it over and fell down in the process, forcing Jesper Bratt to backcheck and break up the counterattacking rush.

A shot from Rasmus Ristolainen was deflected just wide of the net four minutes into the period. The Devils continued to fail to generate any meaningful posession, as they chipped the puck out of the zone to change the forward line. The Sabres immediately restarted their possession, putting a couple attempts toward Dell that were stopped.

Michael McLeod nearly scored, as he cut across the ice in the offensive zone and appeared to try the five hole, but Ullmark stuffed the shot. On the following shift, with McLeod skating with Boqvist instead of Thompson, McLeod wrapped around the net and banked the puck off Ullmark’s pad. It went out to Boqvist, whose shot got past Ullmark. 4-3, Devils.

Jack Hughes set up Yegor Sharangovich for a one-timer off the rush, but the pass seemed a bit ahead of Sharangovich and the shot was wide. It would have been good to see him bury that chance - as the team is in need of a one-timer option in the absence of Kyle Palmieri.

Play was stopped with 5:46 to play, as Rasmus Ristolainen got tied up with Andreas Johnsson behind the play. Ristolainen was called for a high stick. Johnsson tapped him with a leg slash, and Ristolainen cross-checked him in the neck.

The Devils’ first unit had to fight off the Sabres’ aggressive kill early, and Ty Smith finally got possession about 30 seconds in. The Devils gained the zone, and Jesper Bratt banked it back to Ty Smith for a wrist shot that was gloved and frozen by Ullmark at the end of the first minute. The first unit stayed on for the following draw, and Zacha won the puck back. Jack Hughes fired a shot off the crossbar and out of play from the faceoff circle Zacha had scored from earlier. Zacha won the following draw, and the Devils initally struggled to pass around. Jesper Bratt lost the puck twice, leading to a clear. The Devils quickly countered, but could not get a shot.

In the final three and a half minutes, the Sabres moved the puck around quickly in the offensive zone - but a pass to the point was deflected down the ice. Miles Wood negated an icing with 2:40 to play after Damon Severson cleared it,. The Devils retained possession with McLeod and Johnsson on, and took a couple attempts but didn’t get into much open space. Sharangovich forced Ullmark to cover the puck with a shot with 1:57 to play. Miles Wood’s hustle killed about 40 or so seconds of possible Sabres attack time.

The Devils’ forecheck took the puck away from Riley Sheahan in the corner, as Kuokkanen wheeled the puck around to Jack Hughes, who one-touched it to Sharangovich, who scored on the shot! 5-3, Devils, with just over a minute and a half to play. That was the one-timer he was looking for earlier.

The Sabres then pulled Ullmark, and Miles Wood nearly scored after he raced to a loose puck - but he could only poke at it. Nonetheless, Jack Hughes won a puck battle on the wall shortly after, getting the puck to Yegor Sharangovich. Sharangovich sent it across to Kuokkanen, who scored from the point. 6-3, and the Devils skated off with a victory.

The Game Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The Natural Stat Trick Game Stats

The Opposition Opinion: Die By The Blade has a recap.

The Art of Not Turtling With the Lead

The Devils played a full 60 minute effort tonight. After looking like they were going to let the Sabres control the third period, they came roaring back with the goal by Jesper Boqvist. In the third, they ended up allowing just seven attempts against for the whole period, which yielded just two shots on goal. Down the stretch, Lindy Ruff turned to the Hughes line (which will get their own section in this recap) quite a lot, pretty much phasing Tyce Thompson, Mikhail Maltsev, Nick Merkley out of play for the second half of the final period; opting for a reshuffled third line of Johnsson, McLeod, and Boqvist.

The reshuffled third line worked wonders in the third period. In just 2:19 together, they had an 80.00 CF%, a goal, and an 85.73 xGF% (0.35-0.06). They were only credited for one shot, but McLeod seemed to have banked the puck off Ullmark leading to Boqvist’s goal. As for the Hughes line, I was pleasantly surprised to see Lindy Ruff give them a huge chunk of the ice time at even strength even when the Devils were playing with a lead. Ruff did not send out a mixed group of defensively capable forwards for even the empty net situation - he put his play-driving line on the ice. It paid dividends for my heart rate in the final couple of minutes, as I’m sure was the case for many watching.

A Goal For Each of the Hughes Line

How often do you see this happen for the New Jersey Devils? The Hughes line scored three goals tonight, with each player getting a goal, a primary assist, and a secondary assist. Sure, one of them was an empty netter - but I’m pretty sure they could have scored three goals during the game regardless. In over 11:22 minutes together as a line, they had an 85.71 CF% at five-on-five, allowing zero shots at five-on-five and getting 10 on goal. Their 5v5 xGF ratio was 0.77 to 0.02 for a whopping 97.77 xGF%. The empty net goal brought their xGF total up to 1.6 in all even strength play. They were a perfect line, and exactly what the Devils needed to follow up Pavel Zacha’s goals, which got the ball rolling for the team.

Pavel Zacha’s Game

After having an excellent game on Tuesday, including a dominant five-on-five performance with Wood and Bratt and a goal to go along with a power play assist, Pavel Zacha had another fruitful game today. His line “only” had a 58.82 CF% in 11:30, outshooting the Sabres seven to four and sporting a 54.75 xGF%. This was a step back from their most recent performance, but Zacha was still buzzing on the power play today. His two goals brings him to three power play goals on the season to go with five assists. That might not seem like a lot, but that’s just under 18 power play points per 82 games - and the Devils’ power play sucked for most of this season. With only 16 team power play goals, Pavel Zacha has scored or assisted on half of them.

And if that point-scoring pace isn’t good enough for you, Kyle Palmieri led the team each of the last two years with 18 points in 65 games in 2019-20 and 18 points in 74 games in 2018-19 - and those power plays were much more competent, even if below average. If Ruff and Recchi keep this first unit together, with Zacha, Hughes, Bratt, and Smith, expect it to pay off the rest of the season.

Shaking Off a Lot of Rust

Aaron Dell had a rough start to this game with a quick goal. He also allowed the Sabres to tie the game with two pretty bad goals in the second period. The power play goal was more egregious, as he slid himself out of position while kicking out a prime rebound. The even strength goal by Skinner seemed fine at a glance, but Dell blocked a high shot that would have sailed way over the crossbar into a Devil, giving Skinner the rebound. He needs to do better than that. Fortunately, he fought off his rust and finished with an .889 save percentage, including a .909 performance at even strength. The goals he gave up were all on dangerous shots - but the second and third could have been prevented had he not created those rebounds for the Sabres.

Huge Game For Boqvist

Jesper Boqvist had four points in the first 40 games of his career. Since being called up to play on March 26 against the Capitals, he’s had two assists and a goal tonight in six games (all coming in the past four he’s played). After the disappointing start to his NHL career, fueled, no doubt, by the difficulty of getting him from his SHL club, it seems many fans started to write off Boqvist. However, he showed tonight why he was so highly-touted by the Devils. He was firing off shot attempts, drawing penalties along the boards (nearly creating a goal for Ty Smith in the process), and was strong defensively. The game-winning goal was a reward for a great game, as he played to a 66.67 CF% and 78.46 xGF% at even strength.

The end of this season is huge for Boqvist. He’s played little hockey this season, as this was his 11th NHL game, along with just eight games for Binghamton-in-Newark and the 13 games he played for Timra in HockeyAllsvenskan when he was unable to join his SHL club during the pandemic. If he continues to finish this season strong, he would be hitting the ground running for next season.

Your Thoughts

What did you think of tonight’s game? Did you enjoy it? Did you think we were going to be in for a loss after the first goal by Olofsson? What about after the tying goal by Skinner? How do you feel about this forwards group as Nico Hischier preps for a return? Who is the odd-man out from this group? What did you think about Aaron Dell’s performance? Do you think the Devils will try to trade him for peanuts, or do you think this is an audition for next year, competing with Scott Wedgewood? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Whether you followed along in the gamethread, or on Twitter @AATJerseyBlog, thanks for reading. This is Chris - goodnight.