Tonight, the New Jersey Devils had a real chance to make a statement for this season. A win over the Buffalo Sabres tonight would have secured their first playoff berth since 2017-18. A win would also put the Devils at 100 points, a mark that the team has not reached since 2011-12. A win would also be a good response after an last-second overtime loss to Minnesota on Tuesday, meaning tomorrow’s home game against Ottawa would not put the Devils at risk of going winless in their last three. And a win would have put the Devils back six points ahead of Our Hated Rivals in the standings and in a tie with Carolina for first place, even with the Canes owning two games in hand on New Jersey.
As you can see by the headline, the Devils did not win. They lost. To Buffalo by a score of 4-5.
As you can also see by the headline, the source of tonight’s loss was too many mistakes. The Devils were dug in too deep of a hole to climb out of for what would have been another comeback win in a season full of them. Further, the damage on the scoreboard was all done in the first two periods with five goals allowed to Buffalo. The game was as low as 2-5 by the second intermission. Comebacks by three or more goals are rare for a reason as the Devils have not had one yet this season among their 24 comeback wins. At least according to Bill Spaulding saying so on the broadcast several times. The Devils came close but fell short and they have no one else to blame.
The hole was dug in by a terrible defensive effort in the first period. The first goal against saw four Devils converge on the right side where Jack Quinn had the puck. Quinn was able to outlet the puck to the slot where a wide open Dylan Cozens took the pass and rounded Akira Schmid for the score. Less than 30 seconds later, John Marino attempted a pass to Jack Hughes, saw it blocked, and the rebounded puck off Alex Tuch led to Tage Thompson burning past Ryan Graves. Thompson went bar-down on Schmid to make it 0-2. Less than 100 seconds after Yegor Sharangovich one-touched a Michael McLeod pass to get on the board, Cozens led a counter-attack that saw Quinn get around Jonas Siegenthaler and then torch Schmid with a shot. The Devils were down 1-3 just before eleven minutes into the game. Schmid was pulled and replaced by Vitek Vanecek. And the Devils’ skaters were culpable on each of those three goals. Sure, it would have been great if Schmid bailed out the Devils on one of those seven shots. Then again, it would have been great if the Devils did not overload on Quinn for GA #1, Marino didn’t force a pass, Graves was not a snail on skates, and Siegenthaler took a far better angle on Quinn. Those fretting about how the Devils would defend in the playoffs were given reason to fret some more.
While the Devils would pull within a goal thanks to a Kevin Bahl shot bouncing off a Sabre and into the net, the mistakes kept on coming in the second period. They were a bit more subtle. A bad zone entry here. A bad drop pass there. A missed feed or a couple ten. Despite having two power plays, the Devils registered a whopping five shots on Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen in the second period. Five. In a game where a high-scoring Devils team were up against a Sabres team that struggled to defend and said Devils team needed goals, the Devils had five shots on net. I understand they hit the post twice on their two power plays and Jack Hughes had a goal disallowed due to an offside challenge. Five shots on net is far, far too little. Especially after putting up 13 - and two goals - on Buffalo in the first period.
While the Devils can claim some better defensive effort to keep the Sabres to five, they really cannot given that they conceded two more goals. Tuch, Jeff Skinner, and Peyton Krebs pinned back Marino, Graves, Erik Haula, Hughes, and Dawson Mercer. As the Sabres reversed the puck back and forth, Haula was chasing Tuch and, well, could not keep up. Tuch got to the slot, Skinner found him open, and Tuch rifled in a shot off the left post and in. 2-4. McLeod drew the first power play for NJ but created their third penalty kill on a needless grab on offense. Buffalo punished the Devils by pinning them back and Tuch re-directing a slap-pass by Rasmus Dahlin to make it 2-5.
At this point, the Devils have trailed in the game since six and a half minutes into it, they had just 24 shot attempts and 15 shots in the first two periods and were down three scores. Not that it mattered but seeing Jack Hughes’ goal come off the board added some salt in the wound. But even if if it did count, it would not take away that the Devils’ offense stalled out in 5-on-5 in the second period, the defensive zone play got beaten again after a nightmarish first period, and one of those PKs would not work. It would take a near-miracle for a comeback at this point.
Enter The Big Deal, Jack Hughes to come close to providing one himself.
Hughes would get a goal that would count just 5:20 into the third period. He took a great pass from Jesper Bratt, streaked down the left side, and ripped a shot past Luukkonen to make it 3-5. Minutes later and a missed Erik Haula rebound try among others, Cozens is called for a slash on Nico Hischier. This power play would connect when Hischier set up Hughes to Luukonen’s left for another far-post shot. Hughes had a brace, the Devils had their first PPG since March 16 (or three games ago), and the Devils were back to being within one.
Unfortunately, this is where the errors would come up. Two minutes of tentative play. Some poor entries or straight up bad passes into Buffalo defense. The offense would get kicking for a couple of minutes, but then Buffalo pushed back for a minute or so. A little John Marino turnover nearly became a game-killing score for Henri Jokiharju, but he skied the shot. The press was on. Then it was time for a Damon Severson Catastrophic Moment.
With less than four minutes to play, Severson - who was otherwise having a fine game! - lost the puck in the offensive zone. Casey Mittelstadt recovered it. In trying to win it back, Severson tripped him up in the neutral zone. Clear view in front of everyone. While Mittelstadt was surrounded by other Devils. Taking a penalty in that situation, especially when down a goal within the final five minutes, is stupid. Simple as. No Game Score or on-ice rate or generated metric accounts for Stupid Penalties. But Severson is not averse to them enough times to keep people like me from referring to it a Catastrophic Moment. As far as catastrophes go, it was not as bad as others. But it did hurt as Buffalo largely kept the Devils - who need a goal - from attacking for two minutes. Save for a shorthanded 2-on-1 led by Erik Haula, but Cozens backchecked hard enough to block Haula’s shot attempt.
The penalty kill ended with Cozens being wide open on the Devils’ weakside, but Vanecek was ready for it and made the save. The Devils had roughly 80 seconds to win the puck, get the puck in Buffalo’s end, pull Vanecek for an extra skater, and get one more past Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. The Devils get the first three accomplished with about a minute left. Then the play by play log shows: one Hughes shot blocked, one Bratt shot saved by Luukkonen, one icing by Buffalo with 7.6 seconds left, one timeout by the Devils, and one Devils faceoff win. Hughes attempted a play, the puck got free in the slot, the Devils could not corral it, and the Sabres cleared it for the win.
The game is an example of a number of things. For me, it is that the Devils put themselves in a tough spot with their crummy first and second periods. A more active offense in the second period could possibly yield not needing three goals in the third period for a comeback. Seriously, five shots on net against this Buffalo team? A better defensive effort to start may have meant the Devils would not trail at 1-3 or go down 2-4 or 2-5 in the second period. The penalties by McLeod and Severson were damaging in keeping the Devils from what they should have been doing, with McLeod’s being worse as it ended with a goal against. The score will show a close loss. The result will show a lost opportunity to mathematically secure a playoff spot, pull away from Our Hated Rivals, and pull closer with Carolina for first for a night. The game itself showed that this Devils team can still ruin their own night with their own errors. Buffalo was just the team to make them pay this evening.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here are the game’s highlights.
The Worst Devils: While their 5-on-5 numbers were not bad, the worst Devils in this game absolutely included John Marino and Ryan Graves. Graves’ lack of speed was a real issue all night long, not just in how Tage Thompson broke away from him in the first period. Graves was slow to get into position to battle for pucks and struggled at times to get the puck out, especially when Haula’s line was out there. Marino was surprisingly poor as he just made mistake after mistake on the puck. His bad pass to Hughes created the Thompson GA, Marino had other turnovers that were just costly, and he had to do a lot more chasing thanks to Graves having issues. The pairing of Marino-Graves has been fruitful for most of this season. But they were terrible tonight.
Likewise, Erik Haula was real bad. Early on, it appeared that the Hughes, Haula, and Mercer line was getting crushed in the run of play. Because they were. In the third period, Lindy Ruff finally got them away from each other. Mercer thrived next to Tomas Tatar and Nico Hischier. Hughes also thrived with Bratt and Ondrej Palat, which did yield a goal. Haula, well, he was just struggling out there. Turnovers with the puck. Getting beaten by Tuch for a GA in the second period was especially bad. Haula’s moves on the PK paled in comparison to a more effective Yegor Sharangovich. Of course Haula failed to put in a rebound in the third period or get a shot off in a 2-on-1 shorthanded rush, but that was just gravy for a turkey of a night where Haula was just struggling in his own end. For all of the talk about how Haula was re-united to help Hughes on defense, this game proved that was not the case. Credit to Ruff for breaking that line up. But I need to see a lot more from Haula than this in general. And not to see Timo Meier ride with him.
It does seem cruel to include Akira Schmid, but three goals on seven shots is three goals on seven shots. I can agree that he was pulled more for giving the team a “spark,” except that did not quite work out either.
The fourth line did not have a good game but they did not play much and they still added in a goal to answer back two quick ones from Buffalo. That’s not nothing. As much as I hated McLeod’s penalty in the second period, he did create Sharangovich’s first goal in quite some time. So that is some redemption. And as much as I hated Severson’s tripping penalty in the third period, he was otherwise having a good game. Which is unfortunately not unfamiliar to those who have followed Severson for several seasons now.
I Am Confused: This is more disappointing than the worst, I am confused how the Devils out-attempted Buffalo 14-2 with Tatar on the ice and 17-5 with Palat on the ice, but did not register more than 8 shots on net. This is at 5-on-5 too. It makes the five-shot second period even more baffling.
Challenged: Hughes did score in the second period with a backhander through Luukkonen’s five hole shortly after Tuch’s PPG. But it was overturned as the Devils - I think it was Palat, it could have been Hughes too - were found to be offside after a challenge. Do the Devils always get hosed in challenges? No. They do not happen a lot, for one. There have been only three this month so far. I can agree that the last one - a goaltender interference on Tatar that wiped out a goal against Tampa Bay last week - was a raw deal. But the Devils effectively won one on March 1 when Nathan Bastian’s goal held up under a Colorado challenge. Would it have been great if the Hughes goal stood up in the second period? Absolutely! But it was overturned with reason and Hughes would score later on anyway. I see it as a wash, more than anything else. Still, just like games against little-known goaltenders, the idea that the Devils always get the short end of the stick in challenges and video reviews is not based in reality.
The Big Deal Returns: Two goals and an assist on Bahl’s goal meant a three-point night from the Devils’ best forward. He nearly made the comeback himself. Alas, it was not to be. But if you’re looking for a positive, then seeing Hughes get a brace is a big one. The Devils could use their best player to rise up from shooting at below 3% in all situations since late February. I did appreciate how well Hughes played off of Bratt and Palat in the third period. I hope to see it germinate in more production tomorrow against Ottawa.
Speaking of Multipoint Efforts: Kevin Bahl had puck luck for his goal and picked up a secondary on Hughes’ first goal. In the run of play, he was positive and his only rough moment was when Thompson walked him in the third period with a toe drag. But Bahl tried to keep up with him to deny him cutting across the crease, allowing Vanecek to make the big stop. It was a learning experience but ultimately a good night for the big defender. More games like that (with fewer top scorers storming him) and he could be a shoe-in over Brendan Smith in a few weeks.
Beef: In the first period, Rasmus Dahlin took down Nico Hischier with a reverse hit. Basically, he backed into a player, expecting a hit. Normally, that is fine. Except Dahlin took a hop and put his butt in Hischier’s face to do so. For those who want to see Guys Standing Up For Each Other, you surely liked Bratt jumping on top of Dahlin that kicked off a big beef in the Sabres’ right corner. Hischier would get up and try to rough up Dahlin for it. Somehow, only Hischier got the penalty out of all of that. Not Bratt or Dahlin or anyone else. Weird.
By the way, both Bratt and Hischier had solid games. Bratt was a bit more obvious as he had five shots on net out of seven attempts and set up Hughes’ first goal. Hischier did set up Hughes’ PPG but only had the three shots on net.
The ‘X’ Can Be Achieved Tomorrow: What adds to the frustration is that this game was set up for the Devils to take another step in a season full of steps forward. Tomorrow, they can still get the ‘X.’ They do not even need to win to do so. If Our Hated Rivals beat Florida tomorrow in regulation, then the Devils are in. But I do not want Our Hated Rivals to win under any circumstances. Just beat Ottawa tomorrow, please. Show the Rock something better in the first and second periods compared with tonight.
One Last Thought: If Buffalo can develop a coherent defensive structure and find a goaltender that is reliable, then they can do some real damage in the near future. Tonight was a reminder that Thompson, Tuch, Skinner, Cozens, Dahlin, and John-Jason Peterka can provide quite a bit of offense. When the Sabres were forced back, it got ugly at times for them (first and third period only) and while Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen made some good stops he was also cleanly beaten for three out of four goals and saved by two posts and an offside challenge. I can see why this Sabres team has slumped their way out of the wildcard race. I also got to see why this Sabres team was so close a few weeks ago. It will be interesting to see how they look on April 11 in Newark.
Your Take: The Devils lost 4-5 in Buffalo as the comeback fell short due to a big hole the Devils dug in for themselves. What was your take about this loss? Who excelled the most in your eyes for the Devils? Who had the worst game(s) on the Devils tonight? What would you change with the lineup for tomorrow’s game against Ottawa? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this loss in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for the game preview, those who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog, and you for reading this recap.