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Game Preview #21: New Jersey Devils at Buffalo Sabres

On the day after Thanksgiving, the New Jersey Devils begin a back-to-back set of games. They are in Western New York to visit the Buffalo Sabres. Learn more about the Sabres and the matchup with this game preview post.

Vegas Golden Knights v Buffalo Sabres
Tage Thompson and the Sabres will welcome the Devils on Black Friday
Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

Black Friday is called that as it is common for many stores and businesses to make a positive profit, which was historically recorded in black. Our Favorite Team is seeking to take tonight’s opponent to the pay window and cash in another victory.

The Time: 8:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV - MSGSN, MSG-B; Audio - The Devils Hockey Network

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

The Last Devils Game: The New Jersey Devils hosted Toronto on Thanksgiving Eve. This one featured a packed Prudential Center to hope to see the Devils’ 14th straight win. In the first period, it appeared that Jonas Siegenthaler got the scoring started. Only for the goal to be ruled as no-goal on the ice and upheld on review as Nathan Bastian just interfered with Matt Murray just enough by rule. The Devils challenged the call and lost. While the Devils killed the penalty, the Leafs would strike first. A diving pass from behind the net by Mitch Marner to John Tavares led to a 0-1 deficit. A defensive zone turnover led to a puck squirting free for a one-on-one between Pontus Holmberg and Vitek Vanecek. Holmberg beat the goalie five-hole to make it 0-2. The Devils needed to attack more. They did that in the second period. They hit a post. Damon Severson seemingly scored, only for interference to be called outside of the net as Tomas Tatar contacted Murray - but no penalty was given to Tatar. The Devils tried and tried, they got power plays, and they could not score. In the third period, the Devils pushed even further. Dougie Hamilton took a high-sticking call. During the penalty kill, Yegor Sharangovich seemingly beat Murray for a shorthanded goal. Only for that goal to be reviewed and wiped out due to a kicking motion. Again, per letter of the rule, it was. The fans had enough. They were irate. Many expressed their displeasure by hurling things onto the ice. Hopefully no fans were hurt in the process. It was a shameful scene; conducted largely by adults who seemingly forgot how to behave in public at a Pre-K level. Anyway, after the delay and the clean up, the game resumed. Hamilton would re-direct in a pass by Fabian Zetterlund and that absolutely counted. The Rock was standing from then on to hope for an equalizer. The Devils tried. They pulled Vanecek. They attacked. They could not beat Murray again. The final horn sounded. More idiots who do not deserve to come back to the Rock threw things at the Maple Leafs players. The heater was turned off. The wagon’s wheels broke. The streak was covered up. The winning run was over with a 1-2 loss to Toronto. Matt recapped the loss here.

The Last Sabres Game: While the Devils were hosting Toronto, Buffalo was hosting St. Louis. Buffalo was coming off a big win against Montreal. St. Louis was coming in with seven straight wins, salvaging their horrid start to this season. The Buffalo offense emerged for the second straight game. Jeff Skinner scored 18 seconds into the game to give the Sabres an early lead. Pavel Buchnevich scored a PPG early in the second to tie it up. Then the Sabres responded. Dylan Cozens put the Sabres up 2-1 two minutes later. About three minutes after that, Victor Olofsson made it 3-1 with a PPG. Later in the second, Skinner made it a two-goal night with a PPG of his own. Jack Quinn scored a pair of goals in the third period to extend it to six goals for Buffalo. Brayden Schenn scored a consolation goal on the shift after Quinn’s second of the period (and game). No matter, the Sabres shut off the Blues’ heater with a 6-2 win. Melissa Burgess recapped the victory here at Die by the Blade.

The Goal: Stay out of the box if you can and be sharp on the penalty kill as needed. Despite the season being a story of two runs for Buffalo, their power play has been consistently good. Check out their stats. They are just inside the top-ten in terms of success rate: 26.3% with 21 goals out of 80 man advantages. The 21 PPGs is tied for the third most in the NHL. Moreover, the 80 power play opportunities they have had is the second most in the NHL as well. This is a Sabres team that has and drawn a lot of calls and punish their opponents at a regular rate. It can be argued they are over performing on the power play. Their rate stats per Natural Stat Trick are not that impressive. The Sabres have the sixth lowest xGF/60 in power play situations at 6.18- with an actual goal rate of 9.4 per 60 minutes. Yet, their team shooting percentage is good, but not exactly off the charts at 17.65%. It is a team that gets it done by volume. The Devils need to be disciplined with their sticks and bodies to make sure they do not concede more man advantages than they need to. It could be what gets Buffalo going. With a team having as bad of November as them, anything positive is a big lift. Devils need to deny them that as much as they can help it to get an edge in this game.

How’s Buffalo Doing?: Not so well, but recent games have been encouraging. Sure, October went well for the Blue and Gold. They went 6-3-0. They finished in a tie with the Devils and Edmonton for the fourth best record in the entire NHL. They scored 37 goals and conceded just 25. Their power play converting at a rate of 23.5%. Their penalty kill was also quite solid with a 82.8% success rate. A young team with plenty of talented players with tantalizing futures such as Rasmus Dahlin, Tage Thompson, J.J. Peterka, Dylan Cozens, Owen Power, and Casey Mittelstadt were throughout the lineup. Victor Olofsson and Alex Tuch were hot and filling the net with six goals each. Veterans like Jeff Skinner and Kyle Okposo were contributing more than just a little bit. Head coach Don Granato had his charges performing well.

Since then, it has been a horrible time for the Sabres. They enter this week with a 1-8-0 record in their last nine games. That one win was back on November 2. Then eight losses ensued. That is the worst record in the entire NHL from November 1 to November 20. The team went from averaging just over four goals per game to 2.78 per game with 25 goals in those nine games. They conceded a whopping 41 goals in those nine games; their GA per game rate shot up from 2.78 per game to 4.56 per game. The power play success rate was still a potent 23.1% in those games. Their penalty kill success rate fell into a ditch; a miserable 60.7% in those nine games. Thompson, Dahlin, Cozens, and Power are producing; there are still contributions from Skinner and Okposo; and goals from Tuch and Olofsson. They are just not as much given the drop in team scoring. The goaltenders? In a word: Oof. The Sabres only have Ottawa to thank for not being at the bottom of the Atlantic Division.

Of course, that run of futility was prior to their back to back set prior to Christmas. They absolutely crushed Montreal on Tuesday night to end their losing streak. Buffalo dropped three goals on Montreal and just kept adding goals. Even during their losing streak, scoring goals was not their main problem. They demonstrated that they can ruin someone’s night with offense. They did it again the next night against St. Louis. They dropped two more power play goals to their impressive totals amid six goals against a goaltender - featuring braces from the veteran Jeff Skinner and rookie Jack Quinn. This is a Buffalo team that can absolutely score in bunches and it led them to two wins in a row right before Thanksgiving. Something the team badly needed after eight straight losses.

Even with those two wins, the Sabres have been horrid enough in November to wipe away a lot of their very successful start to this season. There is a good chance Buffalo’s playoff hopes from a month ago are now just dreams. Short of a massive winning streak like the Devils have had for the past several weeks, the Sabres are looking at yet another season of selling off by the deadline, getting familiar with the 2023 NHL Draft class in December with the WJCs, and looking ahead to next season. It would not be totally incorrect to compare them to recent Devils seasons where they did the same. Maybe they will blossom in 2023-24 and beyond.

That is the bigger picture view. For tonight, though, the Sabres are a team that commands more respect. At least for their offensive capabilities. Then again, the Devils have played teams with not-so-good records who have won the last two or three games before playing the Devils and the Devils took them down. See: Montreal, Vancouver, Arizona for examples. Provided the Devils can avoid getting frustrated - and stay out of the box - they can try to dull their swords and hit back on their own.

The Buffalo Offense: Buffalo’s offense is certainly not bad. Even during their winless run, an average of nearly 2.8 goals per game is nothing to sneer at. It is quite good. They did drop a seven-spot on fellow not-so-hopeful-Atlantic Division opponent, Montreal. And six-spot on a formerly-hot St. Louis squad. Even if you look at their team rate stats in 5-on-5 for the whole season, the Sabres are at least a good offensive squad compared to the rest of the league in offensive stats.

Per Natural Stat Trick, the Sabres ranks just inside the top-ten in CF/60 at 58.79; not far from the top-ten in SF/60 at 30.94; are inside the top-ten in SCF/60 at 31.65; and at the league median in HDCF/60 at 11.99. The team’s expected goals for rate is a solid 2.68 per 60 and they are just outproducing that with an actual goals for rate of 2.84 per 60. The team’s shooting percentage is a warm 9.17%. What is more is that the Sabres are above 50% in those stats except for HDCF% and actual goals. This is a team that can attack and put up quite a bit in 5-on-5 if given the chance. Just ask the Canadiens and Blues.

These 5-on-5 values are driven by plenty of Buffalo’s top players. When forward Tage Thompson and defenseman Rasmus Dahlin are on the ice, the Sabres are controlling the play. Thompson has been a monster out there this season. In addition to his hugeness, he is among league leading scorers with 13 goals and 13 assists in 20 games. He is close to 100 shots already; he has 94. He should be the main target for the Devils among their forwards in terms of coverage. Dahlin is similar to Cale Makar, Adam Fox, and other defensemen who just drive a lot of offense and can be a force in both ends of the rink. He has 8 goals and 23 points already, which is remarkable for a defender. Neither produced in the win over St. Louis where the team scored six goals. This is notable as it is a sign the team is not entirely reliant on them to produce.

The Sabres have also done quite well with various minutes given to Jack Quinn, Dylan Cozens, Owen Power and John-Jason Peterka. This bodes well for their future as they will form the core around Thompson and Dahlin. They also have been productive in their own ways. Quinn has three goals and six assists. Cozens has five goals and fifteen points. Peterka has four goals and ten points. Power has eight assists. As they grow, they can accomplish more. Should you want an X-factor, then look to veteran Jeff Skinner. He has been a stand out in 5-on-5 hockey for the Sabres and has nine goals, 12 assists, and 60 shots in 19 games. He just dropped five points on Montreal and a brace against St. Louis; ignore him at your peril. This does not even include the great goal production from Alex Tuch (10 goals, 21 points) or Victor Olofsson (10 goals, 12 points), who both produced in the win over St. Louis.

The larger point is that this Sabres team can put up some great offensive results. This is not just a result of a couple of blow out wins. The season is 20 games old; we are starting to see some signals among the noise. I think Buffalo can be potent on offense in 5-on-5 hockey. The Devils should be able to handle it in the same way they have handled Edmonton and Toronto in recent games. Either the John Marino-Ryan Graves pairing or Jonas Siegenthaler-Dougie Hamilton pairing will get to deal with Thompson’s unit. The real trick will be ensuring the Devils forwards stay mindful of Dahlin’s spot on the ice. He can activate with the best of them as well as provide support from the back. It will not be easy but we have evidence that the Devils can get it done against teams with potent offenses.

What is also potent is their power play. Go read The Goal to see that again. In terms of who to worry about on said power play, it is largely the same people you would need to worry about in 5-on-5. Tage Thompson has the most power play shots (35) and PPGs (5) on the team. Rasmus Dahlin is second to Thompson in shots (18) and has the most points with 12 - four of which are goals. Alex Tuch, Jeff Skinner, and Victor Olofsson have chipped in with Jack Quinn and Owen Power getting some time on secondary units. Casey Mittelstadt is also of note has nine power play points, so he has done more than just chip in the odd contribution here and there. Again, the Devils need to be careful about taking a lot of trips to the box. Buffalo has drawn a lot of calls and punished teams for it. With the New Jersey penalty kill not keeping opponents off the board as they did a month ago, the Devils need to ensure they do not get buried or give Buffalo a foothold on the scoreboard due to their fouls.

If nothing else from this preview, then please understand that Buffalo can put up plenty of goals. Getting into a goal-race with them is ill-advised.

The Buffalo Defense: Buffalo’s defense is also not so awful as you would expect from a team that is 2-8-0 this month. Look at their 5-on-5 stats per Natural Stat Trick. They have conceded the fourth fewest attempts against rate in the NHL at 51.76. That is quite good. The other stats, not so good but certainly not awful. The Sabres are a bit below the league median in shots against rate (31.26), a bit above the league median in scoring chances against rate (28.56), and in the bottom third of the NHL for high danger scoring chances against rate (12.31). Their expected goals against rate of 2.65 per 60 is at the median of the league. Unfortunately for the Sabres, the actual goals against rate has beaten the model with a GA/60 of 2.77 - which is one of the lower ones in the NHL in 5-on-5 play. That points to more questionable goaltending than a questionable defense.

Again, this defense starts with the fantastic Rasmus Dahlin. He does not just lead their blueline in minutes (with a 26:06 per game average!) and points. He is also their best player in 5-on-5. (Technically outside of seven games of Kale Clague - who has not played since November 10.) Dahlin is a force in all three zones and clearly has done his job quite well. Owen Power has also played a lot in 5-on-5 hockey and in general with an average ice time of over 23 minutes per game. The young defender has also done very well in 5-on-5 play, which bodes well for Buffalo’s future. Lawrence Pilut has been a very solid hand when he has been in the lineup, too. The depth could be stronger. Jacob Bryson is not bad but he is definitely a step down from the defensemen previously mentioned. Mattias Samuelsson and Henri Jokiharju were both recently activated from IR and have not exactly performed so well. Ilya Lyubushkin has also been picked on in 5-on-5 play.

While the Sabres team as a whole has good against rate stats, their blueline is led by Dahlin and Power. Based on their high average ice times, the Devils will see a lot of them. Fortunately for New Jersey, they will not play the entire game. Part of what has made the Devils so successful is that they are getting contributions from multiple lines. Given that the third line has started to see a bump in production and the BMW line has been productive as well as energetic, they can pick on those lesser pairings and lines of the opponent. Plus, a line led by Jack Hughes or Nico Hischier can catch them in addition to trying to break down Buffalo’s best. They have been able to do so during their winning streak. I am confident they can do the same in Buffalo. Which would be very helpful given the state of their goaltending.

I am also confident in the Devils’ power play doing some damage. Buffalo’s penalty kill has been quite unsuccessful this season. Their horrid November dropped the PK’s success rate down to a success rate of 72.7%. That is the fifth worst in the NHL with 18 PPGAs out of 66 shorthanded situations. Fortunately for Buffalo, they have only taken 66 shorthanded situations - a similar number to New Jersey and right around the league median. This also means that they have out-drawn calls from their opponents this season. Which is a plus as Buffalo’s against rate stats in shorthanded situations are not impressive per Natural Stat Trick. Their xGA/60 of 7.79 is around the league median. Their other stats are around that range of the league too; quite a bit below the league median but not among the very leakiest PKs. What that makes is a less than decent PK set up backed by goalies who have been burnt a lot. Buffalo’s goaltenders have a team save percentage of 81.82% in shorthanded situations, which is just outside of the bottom five in the NHL. If the Devils power play does get opportunities and can get a good look, then they can make the Sabres suffer for it. They could use it after a zero put up against Toronto in a close-scoring game where a PPG would have been huge.

The Buffalo Goaltenders: It may not shock you to learn that a team who has been horrid for the better part of a month is not getting a lot of quality goaltending performances. At 5-on-5, Buffalo’s team save percentage is not the worst, but it is just inside the bottom ten in the NHL at 91.13% per Natural Stat Trick. During penalty kill situations, it has been not at all good with a team save percentage of 81.82%. That is just outside of the bottom five in the league and another bad PK night can send them right back down to that part of the rankings.

The main tandem for Buffalo has been 41-year old Craig Anderson and brief ex-Devils depth goaltender Eric Comrie. Comrie has played in more games than Anderson and it has not been all that great. But Anderson will likely catch him as Comrie has been on injured reserve since last week. Anderson has been more than acceptable. A 92% in 5-on-5 play is good. Far better than Comrie’s 90% in the same situation. His save percentage in shorthanded situations is an actually good 87.8%, a far cry better than Comrie’s 79.1%. It may not be ideal for Buffalo to roll with a 41-year old goalie. However, he clearly has performed better than Comrie and the third-stringer from Rochester, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.

If Anderson does not get this game, then it will fall to called-up backup Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. A young goaltender you may not be familiar with? Should you be worried? No. Luukkonen has faced the Devils last season and conceded four goals out of 42 shots in a loss on December 29, 2021. So this would not be his debut against New Jersey, nevermind in general. He has received some games over the past three seasons. In this season, Luukkonen has played in two games. He was shelled in the first one for two even strength goals out of 19 shots and two power play goals out of three shots. In the second one, the win over St. Louis, he conceded one even strength goal out of 32 shots and one power play goal out four shots. A far better night. He would be coming off a good performance, but that has not deterred the Devils from lighting up goalies in good form. Just ask Karel Vejmelka for a recent example of that.

Buffalo’s goaltending situation is not the worst ever, but it has not been good enough in light of Buffalo’s drop in offense in November from a plethora of goals to just a good amount, and their otherwise decent defensive results this season. If Buffalo really wants to turn this season around, then they need help in this position. Whether that is in acquiring another goaltender to upgrade over Comrie, hoping and praying Anderson can keep his numbers at his current level, hoping and praying Luukkonen can be their goalie of the future today, and/or having the skaters try to make life easy for the goalies as much as possible, then they should aim for it. If this is going to be another lost season, then that will at least set them up for a brighter future in the short term.

Any Devils-Specific Notes: The Devils were together for Thanksgiving; they spent the day in Buffalo per Ryan Novozinsky. They had a practice and presumably ate some humble pie leftovers after their streak ended on Wednesday. They are already in place to play tonight.

I would anticipate the same 18 skaters that we have seen for weeks now. Mostly because they only have 19 skaters right now and the extra is veteran AHL defenseman, Tyler Wotherspoon. Alexander Holtz and Kevin Bahl were sent to Utica on Tuesday. Both Holtz and Bahl have been scratched for weeks and are surely rusty. Whatever they need to work on to stay at the NHL level is not going to be in a suite at the Rock. In retrospect, this move could have been made earlier. Then again, I think the Devils wanted to ensure they would not be caught short when away from home earlier this month. After today’s game, the Devils are going to either be in Newark, Manhattan, or Philadelphia until December 20. They will be close enough to the Utica Comets for any call-ups as needed. Holtz and Bahl joined the Comets and played on Wednesday so they are working out the rust. Again, they do have an extra available in veteran defenseman Tyler Wotherspoon, who was called up on Wednesday. I think he is just there as a spare player on hand. Unlike Bahl or Holtz, Wotherspoon is not a developing player and so him sitting has a minimal impact.

As for the goaltenders, this is the first of a back-to-back set for the Devils. With Washington coming to the Rock on Saturday, I would think that would command the attention of Vitek Vanecek. The Caps are the last team to beat the Devils before their record-tying hot streak. The Sabres have been struggling. It makes more sense to give this game to Akira Schmid just as the Devils did with Ottawa last week. Schmid has done quite well in his few appearances with New Jersey this season. As much as Buffalo can attack, so can Ottawa. Schmid handled that quite well. I am confident Schmid can handle whatever the Sabres come up with this evening. This would keep Vanecek fresh for a contest against his old team, Washington.

One Last Thought: Seriously, stay out of the box and be mindful of Buffalo’s best. Among the many things I learned about hockey since 2006 is that even the teams with poor records have some quality players and the capability to ruin anyone’s night in this sport. While I understand the record says a lot about a team’s quality, Buffalo (like Ottawa) is probably better than a sub-50% point percentage team. Maybe not much better, but better than they have been. You and I can discount a team like Buffalo. We should not but we can. The Devils cannot. Fortunately, I do not think they will as they have been able to dispatch the likes of Columbus, Edmonton (first game), Arizona, Ottawa (twice), Vancouver, and Montreal from their winning streaks at the time. Still, it is a constant worry because that is how let down games on paper become let down games on the ice. The Devils lost their streak on Wednesday. They will need to be sharp to rebound unless they want to be pierced by the Sabres’ sharp attack.

Your Take: The New Jersey Devils resume their schedule this evening in Buffalo. Will the Devils prevail to go back home on Saturday night with a victory? Will the Sabres out-attack the Devils and make it a tough one? What do you think of the matchup and Buffalo in general after reading this preview? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s game (e.g. lineup announcements, injuries, etc.) in the comments. Thank you for reading.