Alex Holtz, in the midst of a hot streak, got the scoring going early after Erik Haula worked the puck out from behind the net with a backhand pass to the front. Holtz put it high and scored! 1-0 Devils, and Michael McLeod also got an assist for his work in the corner, getting the puck over to Haula.
The Devils and Sabres engaged in a pretty tight game after the Devils took the lead, with the Sabres being particularly stifled in the offensive zone. Brendan Smith joined Dawson Mercer and Jack Hughes on a rush awhile later, working the puck out of the wall and driving it to the net, causing the Sabres to take a penalty as he sent it through with Hughes in front. The Devils started to cycle with the extra attacker, and Jack Hughes circled up high for a shot through traffic. The puck came out to the side, where Tyler Toffoli smacked a Sabre stick away to get to the rebound, making it a 2-0 game halfway through the period. Brendan Smith and Dawson Mercer both received assists for tipping the point shot. Later, Brendan Smith kicked a bad pass to his stick and just glanced it off Eric Comrie’s shoulder as he went to the net.
With under five minutes to play, Nico Hischier stepped up on a breakout and took the puck away from Connor Clifton, getting the puck to Jepser Bratt, who took the offensive zone. Bratt passed it across to Ondrej Palat, whose shot trickled through Comrie. Nico Hischier, driving the net, put it into the open net! 3-0, Devils — and Don Granato thought about making a challenge for a kicked puck, but the referees seemed not to let the challenge go through. No review was made after a discussion, and the goal stood. It may have hit his stick after the leg, anyway.
Cap’n Crash’n™️ for the 3-0 lead. pic.twitter.com/rcTHTt6Tmm— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) November 26, 2023
The New Jersey Devils continued to go right at the Sabres. Jesper Bratt, with Nico Hischier’s help, took the puck away in the neutral zone and let Nico drive hard to the net. With Nico double-covered, he found the trailer in Ondrej Palat, who hit the corner with his shot! 4-0, Devils! Palat finally started getting rewards for his chances, and Nico also picked up a secondary assist on the play.
Following the next faceoff, Brendan Smith and Connor Clifton dropped the gloves, and Clifton fell to the ice before any punches were thrown. They were assigned offsetting roughing penalties.
Smith and Clifton go at it after the Devils take a 4-0 lead over the Sabres pic.twitter.com/R0KYR1MsDd— B/R Open Ice (@BR_OpenIce) November 26, 2023
After Dougie Hamilton took a tripping penalty, as Smith came out of the box with Clifton, Michael McLeod had a two-on-one with Smith on their penalty killing shift, but Devon Levi came up with a glove save. After the Devils kept the Sabres at bay for awhile, they finally got their first goal of the game with a pass to Jeff Skinner, who roofed the puck from the low slot. 4-1.
Just a minute or so later, Alex Holtz drove into the slot and got a pass from Luke Hughes. Holtz’s shot went low on Levi, and Tyler Toffoli smacked it home! 5-1, Devils. The Hughes brothers, here, combined for the entry and pass into the middle.
Tyler Toffoli had a chance to break down Devon Levi and get a hat trick when he got a pass from Jack Hughes on a three-on-two, with one Sabre missing their stick. Levi, however, got the first shot as Rasmus Dahlin barreled Toffoli into Levi. Marino, on the other side, shot the rebound off of Erik Johnson. The rest of the period went easily for the Devils, who led in shots 27-6 through two periods.
Less than a minute into the period, Dougie Hamilton wound up for a big slap shot from the blue line. His shot deflected off of Dawson Mercer’s skate, off Connor Clifton, and past Devon Levi! 6-1, Devils, and the Sabres looked like they were not interested in finishing the game.
Feast your eyes on the prettiest goal of the year. pic.twitter.com/bSe5HF1jI6— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) November 26, 2023
Brendan Smith took a tripping penalty three and a half minutes into the period when he was putting pressure on Connor Clifton on the forecheck. He went to the box, and the Devils went to the penalty kill, looking for a better two minutes than their first instance. They would not get any improvement. Kyle Okposo deflected a point shot from Owen Power just 16 seconds into the power play, making it a 6-2 game.
Nico Hischier got past Rasmus Dahlin to a loose puck in the offensive zone, and Dahlin slashed him after being spun down to the ice. Nico moved it to Palat, who shot wide — and Nico was unable to get a rebound to put home. The Devils went to the power play. On the power play, Jesper Bratt appeared to be high sticked at the side of the net (there was no call) as Luke Hughes beat Alex Tuch up high and shot the puck right through Devon Levi! 7-2, Devils.
The Force is strong with this one. pic.twitter.com/XkICjk55uG— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) November 26, 2023
Brendan Smith drifted out into the slot and whacked a one-timer off a behind-then-net feed form Nathan Bastian, but Devon Levi denied it. Bastian got the rebound and was also stopped by Levi. Throughout the last several minutes, the Devils continued to dominate the possession of the puck and the shot count on the board. In the last minute of the game, Bastian rang a shot off the crossbar on the rush. Both teams stopped playing for the last 20 seconds, sealing the Devils’ win at 7-2.
Nico the Captain
The New Jersey Devils need Nico Hischier. For the fans who watched (almost) all the games from the Lost Years of 2013 to 2022, the past couple weeks of hockey was a painful reminder of what a team looks like when it’s rudderless. And without Nico Hischier, the Devils did not have an answer for opposing teams on either end. Without Nico Hischier, the Devils collapsed early and late in games, dooming them from collecting points, let alone wins.
Maybe Nico is not the most talented member of the team, but he is one the most efficient players in the league. His routes to the puck are direct, and he works the puck without much flair or any hesitation to the offensive end. He steps up in the neutral zone to create turnovers. He covers for the defense when they are too far up to defend the rush. He drives the net like a bull, and even when he’s not scoring, he’s causing goals to be scored in some way. On Monday, I wrote about Nico’s clear importance to the team, and this game just reinforced how much of an effect he has on everyone around him.
Luke Hughes and Alex Holtz Growing Every Game
In addition to Nico Hischier, I wanted to single out the freshest players on the NHL roster in Luke Hughes and Alex Holtz. They both played great tonight. Similarly, both showed a physical side against Buffalo. Holtz has been finishing his checks for the past couple weeks, which continued tonight. Luke Hughes also threw a check to cause an offsides on a zone entry, which I have been waiting a long time to see. Luke consistently puts himself in a great position to deliver a hit because of his awesome skating, and I was glad to see him finally deliver one tonight.
But more importantly than engaging physically, Holtz and Luke are scoring. Alex Holtz gave the Devils just their fourth game of the season in which they were the first to score, and he had more chances throughout the game. Luke Hughes had two points in his own right, with a goal and an assist. He, too, could have had more as he was looking to set up chances all night. As Hughes builds his game at the NHL level, opposing teams seem to give him more and more respect as a puck carrier — but he still finds the lanes and spaces to beat them in.
Puck Possession = Defensive Dominance
You can’t lose if you don’t give up shots. The Devils only allowed 11 shots on goal for the Buffalo Sabres tonight, compared to the 38 shots that came off their sticks. With an all-situations 70.87 CF%, 79.63 xGF% (4.04-1.03), and a whopping 46 scoring chances to just nine for the Sabres. I am not sure I have ever seen 46 scoring chances in a 60-minute game on Natural Stat Trick. The Devils came constantly at Comrie and Levi, and this is the game they need to emulate in the future.
It’s unfortunate for Vitek Vanecek. He gave up two goals on 11 shots with 1.03 expected goals against. His two goals were both power play goals against. I mean, it’s hard to stop a Jeff Skinner slot shot and a nasty deflection at the front of the crease (with John Marino screening). Thankfully, Vitek was sharp at even strength. Apparently, had Dougie Hamilton and Brendan Smith not taken their penalties, this might have been an easy shutout for Vitek.
But I won’t rag on the defensemen for those penalties. Dougie was a bit careless, but Smith was trying to rock out as a fourth liner in a blowout. If there’s a time I’m going to forgive him for hunting for a goal, it’s a night like tonight. He played physically, throwing hits and going after Connor Clifton a bit, and had a couple scoring chances in addition to his drawn penalty and primary assist on Toffoli’s second goal. For a defenseman, Smith looks more natural as a fourth liner than he does on the back end. And since I mentioned Toffoli, I mention how great of a fit he is for this team. He gets dirty goals and skill goals while playing a hard two-way game. I feel like I’ll glance at his stat page and see him at 40 or 50 goals later this season. He’s that good.
Highlights and Your Thoughts
With that, I just want to leave everyone with the highlight video from tonight. It was a lot of fun to be a New Jersey Devils fan tonight, and I hope everyone felt that at home and at The Rock. Let’s keep this level of play going into the next game.
What did you think of tonight’s game? How happy were you to see Nico Hischier play? How did you feel about their puck dominance? When was the last time you saw a shot count that low? Do you think the Devils are about the bounce back? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading.