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Devils Respond to Nico Hischier’s Injury By Dominating Sabres in Third, Earning 5-4 Victory

After a rough loss on Wednesday and a check to Captain Nico Hischier’s head, the Devils easily could have lost focus tonight. After Nico returned to the ice, and then had to leave the game again, the Devils only grew more and more relentless.

NHL: OCT 27 Sabres at Devils
Jesper Bratt did his part to make the Sabres pay for their hit on the Devils’ Captain.
Photo by Andrew Mordzynski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

First Period

The New Jersey Devils brought the pressure to the Buffalo Sabres for the first few minutes of the game, leading to the first stoppage coming from an icing, past the three-minute mark of the period. Luke Hughes made a great play to break up a two-on-one four about a minute after the icing, ensuring that Vitek Vanecek did not have to deal with anything difficult in the early stages of the game. But Vitek would still give up the first goal when Luke Hughes got stuck in the ice in the neutral zone and fell, giving JJ Peterka a lane to shoot on the rush, with Dougie Hamilton slowly closing from the other side. But Peterka did not wait for anything to develop — he ripped a shot high past Vanecek. 1-0, Sabres.

Alex Holtz then had an awesome shift with the fourth line, creating a shot for Nate Bastian that went hard off the pad, coming off hard forechecking work. Holtz continued to pressure the Sabres, getting in their faces and disrupting their puck carriers. The Sabres did come back, forcing Luke Hughes to take away a loose puck from Alex Tuch in the defensive zone on a rush attempt. Luke passed up the ice, and McLeod passed off to his right, where Holtz ripped a far wrist shot that still gave Eric Comrie some trouble. The puck came back out to Luke Hughes, who was coming down the left wing. Hughes turned back and shot low, but Comrie could not cover the shot — and Alex Holtz slammed the puck home! Tie game.

Brendan Smith took the game’s first penalty for high sticking JJ Peterka in the corner. The Devils went to the penalty kill with 11:21 to play. The Buffalo Sabres had trouble getting going on their power play, as the aggressive Devis penalty kill prevented them from shooting in the first minute. It looked like Jeff Skiner would score with only 30 seconds left to kill, as Vitek Vanecek found himself down and immobile after stopping a shot, giving Skinner a wide open net at the side. But McLeod and Bastian clamped down and blocked the puck away, working for a clearance, surviving the Buffalo power play.

Buffalo took a high sticking penalty of their own with 8:57 to play, as Kyle Okposo went to the box. Nico HIschier lost the draw, and Luke Hughes took the puck from behind goal, leaving it behind for Jesper Bratt to take the offensive zone. They would not get a shot on their possession, as Bratt fanned on a one-timer and had trouble moving the puck. Tyler Toffoli blasted a slap shot on their second posession, but Comeri stopped it. Nico Hischier extended his shift to spring the second unit into the offensive zone, with Dawson Mercer setting Timo Meier up for a couple jabs at the puck in front of Comrie. Comrie stopped those, and then went sprawling for a glove save on a Timo Meier one-timer with only seconds left for the Sabres to kill.

Vitek Vanecek played the puck after making a save on a weak shot with the Devils under pressure, and both defensemen found themselves out of position after Jonas Siegenthaler lost his stick in the face of the forechecking pressure. Tage Thompson worked it around Vanecek and scored. 2-1, Sabres.

After the goal, Nico Hischier was blown up at the blueline by a high hit from Connor Clifton. Ondrej Palat rushed to his defense, dropping the gloves and taking Clifton on for jumping into Hischier. Clifton was awarded a game misconduct for the hit, and the Devils went to the four-on-four for the first two minutes because of Palat dropping the gloves. Regarding the five-minute major call: you can see here that the puck was well, well gone by the time Clifton delivered the hit, of which the principle point of contact was the head, through which Clifton followed through. There was no let-up despite Hischier no longer having the puck, and Clifton deserved that call. He’ll deserve another call from the league in the morning.

With Nico Hischier in the locker room, Jack Hughes went out to take the faceoff at four-on-four, with Marino, Luke, and Bratt. Jesper Bratt took the puck quickly off the faceoff, speeding in more quickly than Jack Hughes could get out to the other wing as a pass option. Bratt whipped the puck through the five hole! Tie game.

On the power play, which featured Timo Meier in Nico Hischier’s place, the Devils struggled to establish possession in the offensive zone. Eric Comrie made a couple saves on Luke Hughes shots, one of them being screened and one being a bit easier to stop. Nate Bastian joined the second unit for the final 30 seconds of the period, but they were unable to get anything going until Dougie Hamilton forced Eric Comrie to make a save at the buzzer from with a hard shot from the defensive zone (yes, an all-three zone shot). The teams went into intermission tied at 2-2, but the Devils would have over a minute of power play time to begin the second period.

Second Period

The Devils did not have Nico Hischier to begin the second period, and they iced the puck off the opening draw. The power play would be wasted, with only a handful of shots across the total three minutes. Dougie Hamilton had a late one-timer, off a feed from Curtis Lazar at the end of the power play, but Comrie saved it.

Nico Hischier came back to the ice two and a half minutes into the period after passing his concussion testing. He was hit in the chest and shoulder towards the end of his shift, but got back up and kept playing.

Alex Tuch got a breakaway after Luke Hughes lost the puck at the blueline, but Vanecek made the save with Hughes providing back-pressure. Vitek then made two huge saves on Jeff Skinner later in the shift, keeping the game tied. A couple minutes later, the Hughes line pressed a rush forward, missing on a pass across the crease — but Bahl and Hamilton got caught, giving up another two breakway shots. Vitek stopped them. Near the halfway point of the game, Vitek made a pad save on a Skinner wraparound attempt. At this point, he had completely made up for any weakness he showed in the first period.

After Tyler Toffoli took a quick one-timer that was padded away, Eric Comrie had a lot of trouble getting up off the ice, dealing with a lower-body injury. Comrie had to leave the game, and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen entered. The Devils tried to test him early, and it seemed like he was being a bit too aggressive with his positioning around the net.

The Devils were called for too many men on the ice with 6:50 to play in the period. Nathan Bastian jumped early, and Alex Holtz served the penalty. Erik Haula went hunting on the penalty kill, poking away a pass back to the point and springing his own breakaway past Rasmus Dahlin. Haula faked on the forehand, pulled to the backhand, and roofed the puck over Luukkonen! 3-2 Devils.

Rasmus Dahlin would tie the game late in the period with an unforced error from Nate Bastian, who deflected Dahlin’s point shot high, above Vanecek’s blocker side. 3-3, with over two minutes to play in the period.

Third Period

Again, Nico Hischier missed the start of the period, as he was not on the bench. They may have gotten away with a delay of game when Dougie Hamilton backhanded the puck over the glass behind the net — but it may have rolled on the glass. It was hard to tell, which was why there was no penalty after a referee discussion (in addition to the fact no penalty was called in the moment). On the other end of the ice, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen played the puck over the glass. Because of course he did — and the referees made the call.

The first unit should have scored at the end of the first minute, when Jack Hughes dipped into the high slot and shot on goal, giving Tyler Toffoli and Timo Meier some whacks around an open net — but Luukkonen and the Sabres were somehow able to keep the puck out of the goal. After a clearance to center ice, the Devils came right back, wasting no time to keep the pressure on. Jack Hughes shot again, from his off-wing — and this time he beat Luukkonen above the blocker! He had traffic in front with Meier and Toffoli. 4-3, Devils.

Despite dominating most of the third period, the Sabres would tie the game with 7:25 to play when Dylan Cozens squeezed the puck through him on a short-side shot, 4-4. This was their second shot of the period.

To their credit, the Devils continued to press the Sabres, undeterred by the tying goal. Jesper Bratt worked from the wall, beating a couple defenders to work the puck back to the point. With a few passes, Kevin Bahl handled the puck from the center of the point, shot high, and got a deflection in front from Erik Haula! 5-4 game! And shortly after the goal, Michael McLeod was tripped into the boards by Owen Power, sending the Devils to the power play with 5:33 to play in the game.

The Devils had to deal with a couple early clearances, with Jack Hughes entering the zone after half a minute to establish real possession. This led to a chance for Timo Meier in front, as Luke Hughes shot low for a deflection — but the shot went just wide. The second unit featured John Marino with Mercer, Haula, and Palat. Marino got a late shot that was turned aside. The Devils did not get a goal out of the power play, but the Sabres did not seem very energized by their kill.

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen went to the bench with over a minute and a half to play. Erik Haula worked the puck out from the wall to Curtis Lazar, who passed ahead to Dawson Mercer. Mercer took a shot at the empty net, but it was just wide, and called for an icing. Vitek Vanecek made a stop with 1:02 to play when the Sabres re-entered following a high flip off the draw. At that point, Don Granato called timeout.

With 1:02 to play, Michael McLeod went to the faceoff dot with Haula and Bratt on the wings, as well as Marino and Bahl backing them up. McLeod won the draw, but Bratt’s pass around the boards did not get out of the zone. Ondrej Palat came on for Bratt when Vanecek froze a shot. John Marino made a great breakup, springing a chance ahead for Haula and Palat. Haula broke his shot on what would have been his hat-trick goal. Michael McLeod had a chance himself at the empty net with seconds to play, but was deterred enough that the puck stayed out. The Devils won 5-4.

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

The Opposition Opinion: Check out Die By the Blade.

The Captain

After the illegal check to the head from Connor Clifton, Nico Hischier was able to return to the ice after missing the start of the second period, but only for a short time. At the end of the night, he had only played 11:10 and struggled to make an impact after his return. I can only hope that he was held out as a precaution after taking another hit to the shoulder from Dylan Cozens in the second period, but this is a worrying trend regardless. Nico Hischier has been targeted by other teams night after night, and it took until now for an opponent to suffer a consequence. Clifton was ejected with his game misconduct penalty, although the Sabres did not have to deal with a real five-minute major because of the instigator penalty that was called on Palat.

I think the team did a great job of responding to losing their Captain, though. Jesper Bratt scored almost immediately at four-on-four, and the Devils outshot the Sabres 18-4 in the third period without Nico on the ice. It was in that period that it finally looked like the Devils were beyond playing with playdrivers and passengers — every skater was active. And with Nico out, during the six-on-five, Jack Hughes went down to make a big shot block up high. Everyone was hell-bent on getting the win.

During his postgame presser, head coach Lindy Ruff said Hischier was held out for precautionary reasons and called for the Department of Player Safety to review the hit. Indeed, it was a late hit, with the puck far gone, with primary contact to the head. We’ll see if the league actually responds.

Alex Holtz’s Excellent Night

One of those active players was Alex Holtz, though he was good from start to finish. In only 10:40 of ice time, Holtz had four shots and 0.31 ixG with his goal. Playing on the fourth line, it’s easy to imagine that Holtz would not find himself having scoring opportunities. But with how focused McLeod and Bastian are on grinding down the other teams, they can use a guy like Alex Holtz to provide offensive focus. To boot, Holtz was physically engaged and had a nose for the puck. Maybe it’s a byproduct of playing so long in the AHL with more physically-minded brands of hockey, but Holtz looked more at home with his linemates tonight than he did on the third line.

Foot on the Throat

Considering how the Devils played down the stretch against the Capitals, I loved how well the team played together in the third period tonight. Every player on the ice skated, I thought, to their full ability, and the Sabres had absolutely no space to work with, also taking two penalties because of the Devils’ superior attack. Vitek Vanecek only let in a rather flukey goal, but I was willing to forgive it on account of his second period performance. If not for that goal of inches (or centimeters), the Devils would have utterly shut them down.

All the way to the end, the Devils were trying to score: and that’s the approach they need. The team has struggled with apparent mental lapses during the early season, and they looked committed to not lapsing at any point in the third. After having 1.01 and 1.46 xG in the first two periods, the Sabres only had 0.17 xG in the final frame, as the Devils had an 89.04 xGF% in all situations. They really could not have played the end of the game any better.

Erik Haula

Erik Haula’s two goals tonight brought him up to four on the season in only six games played. It took 45 games for Haula to score four goals last season. Haula only matched a six-game stretch of this nature last season in the final weeks of the season, when he had six goals in the last seven games of the year. Haula was very prone to streaks of production last season, though, so hopefully he can prolong his offensive start. He certainly seemed to pick up more steam as this one went on.

Your Thoughts

What did you think of tonight’s game? How did you feel about the team’s response to the Nico injury? What needs to happen to protect the captain? How did you feel about Vitek’s performance? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.