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Game Preview #7: New Jersey Devils vs. Buffalo Sabres

After a frustrating loss to the Washington Capitals, the Devils look to bounce back against the young, talented Buffalo Sabres

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at New Jersey Devils Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils (3-2-1) vs. Buffalo Sabres (3-4-0)

The Time: 7:00pm ET

The Broadcast: MSGSN, MSG-B

The Opposition: Die By The Blade

Last Devils Game

On the second half of a back-to-back (the first half being a 5-2 win at Montreal), the Devils dropped an infuriating game to the Washington Capitals by a score of 6-4. Apparently the team wanted to pay tribute to Los Angeles Dodgers fans, who are known for arriving to games late and leaving early, as New Jersey fell behind 3-0 after the first period, stormed all the way back to take a 4-3 lead after two, then conceded three consecutive goals to lose by the eventual final score.

Last Sabres Game

During Frozen Frenzy night on Tuesday, the Sabres visited the Ottawa Senators, coming away with a 6-4 victory. Tage Thompson scored twice and added an assist, while Jeff Skinner contributed two goals of his own. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen was the winning goaltender, stopping 34 of 38 shots on the night

A Concerning Trend

The New Jersey Devils’ season is now six games old, and they have yet to score the first goal in a single game thus far. This plays into the more general concern of this team simply refusing to get off to good starts, with maybe the Islanders game one week ago being the lone exception, and that’s if I’m being generous. Even in the game against the Canadiens earlier this week, New Jersey did play a good first period, so credit where credit is due. However their first five or so minutes left a lot to be desired, especially against a team way closer to competing for the first overall pick in the draft than the Stanley Cup.

Ordinarily I would be tempted to write this off as a small sample size anomaly that we see early in seasons from time to time. The thing is though, this is not just a case of the Devils starting off the season in an unfortunate way. In reality, this is a continuation of a trend that plagued the Devils a season ago, as even in a season where the team registered a franchise record in points they still had trouble starting games on time. This is evidenced by the fact that they led the league in comeback victories in 2022-23. While that’s a terrific result and indicative of a team that never gives up, it’s also indicative of a team that really needs to work on starting games the right way.

The Buffalo Sabres might not be full blown Stanley Cup contenders just yet, but one thing that can’t be questioned is their offensive prowess. The Sabres finished last season third in the league in goals scored with 296 tallies over their 82 games. Players like Thompson, Skinner, Alex Tuch, Rasmus Dahlin, and many more are capable of blitzing opponents with tons of chances, shots, and goals. If the Devils get off to yet another slow start this evening, don’t be surprised if the Sabres absolutely bury New Jersey with an avalanche of goals early.

Goaltending: Officially a Concern?

I sure hope not! But the goalie tandem is looking pretty shaky on the young season. Akira Schmid gave up three goals on eight shots on Wednesday and got the hook at the end of the first period. As Chris pointed out in the game recap from that night, Schmid allowed his three tallies on 0.66xGA according to Natural Stat Trick. Yes the defensive coverage was dreadful (something head coach Lindy Ruff touched on in his postgame presser), but Schmid needed to come up with more than five saves.

Vitek Vanecek played the final two periods against the Capitals, and while he fared better than Schmid, it still wasn’t what you’d call a stellar performance. He allowed his two goals on 1.96 xGA, again according to NST, so he played about as expected according to the fancy stats. That being said, through four games Vanecek is currently rocking a .900 save percentage, as well as a 3.10 goals against average. Those numbers simply aren’t good enough, and while shoddy defensive play in front of him must shoulder part of the blame, he still needs to make more stops if the Devils are going to fulfill their lofty expectations this season.

I would assume Vanecek gets the start tonight, but the Devils did not practice yesterday so we don’t have any info to go on in that regard. Whoever gets the call tonight, they need to return to form.

Hughes Continues to Roll

What more can be said about Jack Hughes at this point? He tallied three more assists on Wednesday, bumping his season total to an astonishing 17 points in 6 games, matching Mario Lemieux’s start to the 1995-96 season.

Anytime you’re being compared to Super Mario, you know you’re doing something right.

Hughes is currently on pace for 232 points, a mark that would shatter the all-time record for points in a single season. Is he going to get there?, he won’t. I feel pretty confident in declaring that right now. But might we be witnessing the beginning of the greatest season in Devils/Rockies/Scouts franchise history? Given Hughes’ trajectory, I’d say that’s a strong possibility.

And it’s not just the raw point totals either. According to Natural Stat Trick, at 5-on-5, Hughes is sporting a 60.04 xGF%, a 61.06 Corsi For%, a 65.45 Scoring Chance For%, and a 60.53 High Danger Corsi For%. If there’s one thing to quibble with, it’s the fact that Hughes is remarkably getting outscored when he’s on the ice at 5-on-5, by a total of six goals for to seven goals against. I have no doubt that number will start to tilt heavily in Hughes’ favor as the season wears on though.

The Devils are having all sorts of problems right now, but Hughes has helped erase a lot of the mistakes this team has made through six games. Having a gamebreaker like him in the lineup is a special thing.

Looking at the Glass Half Full

I have plenty of concerns with how the Devils have started their season. There are trends that need correcting and players that need to shape up, and if they don’t it could spell trouble for New Jersey’s dreams of competing for a championship this season. However, I will at least attempt to offer an optimistic spin on what we’ve seen from the Devils so far.

Despite all the problems and underperformances up and down the lineup, New Jersey is still above .500 at 3-2-1. They have treaded water despite the fact that their goaltending has looked suspect. They have treaded water despite Nico Hischier failing to register a point until his fifth game of the season, and Timo Meier waiting until his fourth, and Dawson Mercer being held completely pointless through the first six games of the season. They have treaded water despite their steadfast commitment to not bothering to show up until at least 10 minutes into games.

In the absence of contributions from the players I just mentioned, others have stepped up. Jesper Bratt has looked terrific so far. Dougie Hamilton continues to provide a ton of offense from the backend while dominating puck possession. Tyler Toffoli can’t stop scoring goals, while also dominating in the run of play. And of course, Hughes has left the known universe. When a team goes through a rough patch, sometimes raw talent can help carry them to positive results despite a less than positive process. It appears that is what’s happening with the Devils right now, and when this team actually does start clicking like they did a season ago, that’s when the wins will come in bunches.

Buffalo’s Soldiers

The Sabres entered this season with high expectations, which made their 1-3-0 stretch to begin their campaign very demoralizing to the Buffalo faithful. They’ve stabilized a bit since that start, winning two of their last three to bring them to within a game of .500 at 3-4-0. They currently sit dead last in the Atlantic Division with their six points though, so they’d better continue to rack up points for their own sake.

The Sabres missed out on the playoffs last season, extending the longest playoff drought in the league, as Buffalo has not made it to the postseason since the 2010-11 season. 2022-23 was a step in the right direction for this franchise though, with the team just barely missing the playoffs thanks to their 91 points and a record of 42-33-7. Buffalo was led by Tage Thompson, their hulking sniper of a first line center. Listed at 6’6” 220lbs according to the NHL’s website, Thompson led the Sabres in points (94) and goals (47) in 2022-23. This season he’s up to three goals and four points through seven games, so not quite the same point pace, but close to the same goal pace.

It’s actually Rasmus Dahlin that currently leads the Sabres in points. Fresh off signing a monster contract on the eve of the campaign that will pay him $88 million for the next eight seasons, Dahlin has yet to find the back of the net thus far, but he’s collected seven assists in his seven games played. He also leads the team in average time on ice, playing 24:13 per game. It’s clear that Dahlin is Buffalo head coach Don Granato’s go-to guy, and while his 5-on-5 xGF% is underwater at 48.31% per NST, his CF%, SCF%, and HDCF% are all between 51-55%. Couple those numbers with his point production, and it’s safe to say Dahlin is enjoying another strong start to the season.

In the crease, Devon Levi got the call for the Sabres’ first four games this year, but he hasn’t played since, as he’s currently day-to-day with a lower-body injury according to the Sabres’ website. In his four games, the 22-year-old registered a save percentage of .892 and a goals against average of 3.26. Clearly this is not the start Levi and the Sabres envisioned for the promising young netminder, but of course the usual small sample size caveats apply.

In that post I linked to in the previous paragraph, Granato is quoted as saying, “…(Levi’s) soreness has not resolved to the point that – under our situation with three goaltenders and Comrie and Upie playing well in their last two games – we’re not pushing it based on all of that. There is no need to push it...We have three goalies and that’s the luxury when it comes to this. But we’re waiting for some more soreness to resolve for him.”

So I think it’s safe to say the Devils won’t be seeing Levi tonight. With Luukkonen getting the start in Buffalo’s last game, it’s possible we see Eric Comrie tonight, who comes in with a record of 1-1, and a save percentage of .923 and a goals against average of 2.05.

Here is how the Sabres lined up in their last game on Tuesday:

I would imagine we’ll see something very similar this evening.

Your Take

The Devils continue their busy week with their third game in four nights tonight against Buffalo. Do you think the Devils will finally score the first goal of a game and get off to a good start? How many points do you think Jack Hughes will put up tonight? Who will you be keeping an eye on from the Sabres? As always, thanks for reading!