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Game Preview #19: New Jersey Devils vs. Buffalo Sabres

The Devils play the second half of a back-to-back against the Buffalo Sabres, as they look to finally return to the win column

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

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils (8-9-1) vs. Buffalo Sabres (9-9-2)

The Time: 7:00pm ET

The Broadcast: MSG, MSG-B

Last Devils Game

It happened yesterday, and it was yet another loss, this time by a score of 2-1 to the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets. Alexander Holtz was the lone scorer for New Jersey.

Last Sabres Game

The Sabres hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins yesterday, and came away with a 3-2 victory. Buffalo entered the third period down 2-0, but goals from Jeff Skinner, Kyle Okposo, and Alex Tuch helped pushed the Sabres over Pittsburgh and back to NHL .500

The Stats Are Lying to You

If you look at the box score from yesterday’s game against the Blue Jackets, you will see the Devils outshot Columbus 38-28. That looks impressive until you see that the Devils were outshot 11-6 after one period, and 19-18 after two periods. It wasn’t until the third when the Devils put up 20 shots that they started to finally tilt the ice a little bit. Columbus was more than happy to just park the bus and let New Jersey fire away, so it’s hard to credit the Devils for such a high shot volume in the third period.

If you look at the Natural Stat Trick advanced numbers for this game, you will see that the Devils finished with a 5-on-5 Expected Goals For% of 51.71%. That looks fine until you toggle over to the 5-on-5 Score Adjusted xGF% and see that the Devils finished at 47.42% when taking that into account. This once again proves the point that the Devils were able to attack in the third not so much because of their own effort, but because the Jackets took their foot off the gas pedal.

Yesterday was a one-goal game, as close as it can be. But the final score flattered the Devils. For the second game in a row, the offense was a shell of itself, and it took a far inferior opponent easing up in the third period for New Jersey to finally put together something resembling competent play.

Does Anyone on the Devils Own a Watch?

I truly do not understand why this team fails to start games on time. Do they not know what time games actually start? Do we need to start a GoFundMe to get the Devils players and coaches some functioning clocks? Whatever the reason, this issue reared its ugly head again yesterday, with the Devils sleepwalking their way through the first 40 minutes before finally showing a pulse in the third (but again, it’s hard to give them too much credit for their offensive showing in the last period anyway).

It seems to me that this falls on the coaching staff. Yes the players are professionals who shouldn’t need Lindy Ruff and his staff to get them motivated and ready to play on time. But the buck stops with the head coach, and these repeated failures are going to sink the Devils if Ruff, his staff, and the players don’t figure out how to start games on time.

Good News/Bad News

Many people who read this blog are, shall we say, not the biggest fans of Brendan Smith’s game. And I have to say, I’m right there with them. He seems like a lovely man who says all the right things to the media, but his performance this season has left a lot to be desired.

So in that regard, it was good news for many people that Smith was not among the starting defensemen yesterday!

But there was bad news...

Smith played wing during even strength play, and defense on the penalty kill. He only played 5:28 of even strength time so the Devils effectively went 11-7 against the Blue Jackets anyway.

To be honest, if Ruff is going to insist on playing Smith then I think this is the most ideal usage for him. Playing him sparingly on a fourth line wing, then sending him out as a defenseman when shorthanded is fine in theory. But in reality it just feels like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

What made matters worse was Curtis Lazar having to leave the game early with what looked like a leg injury, so once again the Devils were shorthanded up front (is it just me or does it feel like the Devils lose a player midway through a game every single time they play? It’s getting ridiculous). With the lineup in such a weird state, and with Lazar’s injury, Smith’s deployment just felt like adding more chaos to an already chaotic scenario. We’ll see if Smith is deployed like this again tonight.

Why?

One last point before I move onto the Sabres. After the Devils killed off a penalty very late in the third period, down a goal and desperate to tie up the game, Chris Tierney was given a shift.

Why?

What is Chris Tierney doing on the ice late in the third period in a game in which the Devils are trailing by one? There are lots of things that are going wrong with the team right now that is being blamed on coaching, but the vast majority of those things are inconclusive at best as to whether the blame should actually fall on Ruff and his staff. But this right here? This is beyond a shadow of a doubt something you can blame Ruff for. Him giving Tierney a shift at that point in the game is unacceptable.

Another Scuffling Team

They say misery loves company, so who better to welcome to town than the Buffalo Sabres. With the exception of the Edmonton Oilers, I don’t think there’s another team in the NHL that so closely mirrors the Devils as far as having high expectations and not living up to them.

While the Sabres were not expected to be at the same level as New Jersey this season, many hockey fans expected the team to compete for a playoff spot at the very least, with many expecting even more than that. Well they enter this game with a record of 9-9-2, a pretty lackluster showing given what many wanted to see out of them this season. And the thing with that 9-9-2 record is it could’ve been worse if not for their inspired comeback against the Penguins last night.

Much like the Devils, things are not so egregiously bad that you can call the season over. But NHL .500 is not where Buffalo wanted to be at this point in the season.

The Missing Star Center

No I’m not talking about Nico Hischier (more on that in a moment). I’m talking about Tage Thompson. Buffalo’s giant center with some of the silkiest mitts in the league suffered an upper-body injury against the Boston Bruins on November 14th. We remains week to week.

Thompson has emerged as one of the NHL’s premier goal scorers over that past two seasons, netting 38 in 2021-22 and 47 (along with a terrific 94 points) last season. This year, Thompson put up six goals and 12 points in 16 games before going down with his injury. It might have been a little bit slower of a start than he was hoping, but those are still respectable numbers.

In his stead, Casey Mittelstadt has been tasked with centering the top line for Buffalo. Mittelstadt has 15 points in 19 games so far, though only three goals out of those 15 points. It’s been going reasonably well under the hood for Mittelstadt as well according to Natural Stat Trick, as he enters this game with a 5-on-5 xGF% of 52.48%. That number is good for third-best on the team (not counting Matt Savoie and his one game played) behind Owen Power and Jordan Greenway.

The Other Missing Star Center

And now we get to our own Nico Hischier. I don’t think I need to remind anybody that the last time these two teams met back on October 27th, this happened:

Clifton served his suspension, and Hischier has not played since.

I do not know if the Devils plan to exact any sort of revenge against Clifton, nor would I advocate for that. If they wish to play tough against Clifton within the bounds of the rules, that is perfectly fine. And besides, knowing what we know about this Devils team, I don’t think we need to worry about them standing up for themselves any time soon. That may sound harsh, but we’ve seen multiple times now over the past few seasons that this team is more than happy to let themselves get pushed around without much in the way of fighting back (legally). The game against the Panthers last season, in which Hischier fell on Alexander Barkov’s leg during a faceoff and injured the Panthers center is the best example to illustrate the point. The Panthers inexplicably felt Hischier injured Barkov on purpose, and so they spent the entire rest of the game being idiotic goons and thugs, taking cheap shot after late hit after cheap shot at Hischier.

And the Devils did next to nothing about it.

So assuming Clifton plays tonight, I do not expect the Devils to send any kind of message to him, either legally or illegally. The best we can hope for is for Clifton to get scored on every time he hits the ice this evening. That’s a revenge I can get behind.

Your Take

What will you be watching out for tonight? Who really needs to step up the most in your eyes? Do you think there will be any extra attention paid to Connor Clifton? Who on the Sabres will you be watching? As always, thanks for reading!