The New Jersey Devils played 40 minutes of solid hockey and literally tried to withstand onslaught after onslaught from a totally desperate Buffalo team in the third to win 3-2. D.O. says it's a tough loss for the Sabres to swallow and I do sympathize as they attempted a really spirited comeback. It was too little, too late tonight and now their postseason hopes are truly in doubt. D.O. will have a full recap up later.
Let me tell you, the first two periods ranged from pretty good to downright great for New Jersey. Both teams didn't show any signs of fatigue from Friday's games, but the Devils made more of their chances. They had the puck more often, they played with confidence, the defensemen did a good job at pinching, and the forwards did a good job at backchecking. Buffalo only got 14 shots through to Martin Brodeur, despite two power plays, in those first periods - a testament to how well the Devils' defense played. And, no, none of those shots really tested Brodeur.
In particular, Andy Greene had a great game on and off the puck outside the two entirely avoidable penalties he took. Niclas Havelid was feeling some "lower body soreness" and so Greene got the call. He clearly took the opportunity to get back into the lineup! He did well, along with the rest of the defense for the most part. Even with what happened in the third period, the Devils a great job in getting in the Sabres' passing and shooting lines, earning many, many blocks. New Jersey got credit for 26, led by Colin White's 6 blocks. I will say it's the best they looked in the last two weeks.
That said, on offense, the Devils got to chase Ryan Miller from the net after those two periods. David Clarkson got things started early with a long shot from the point that fooled everyone. This after a great move by Greene to take puck down low, forcing Buffalo's defense to deny Brian Rolston an easy backhand. Yet, the puck went right to Clarkson for his bomb. Paul Martin took a great shot that Zach Parise tipped for the Devils' second goal on their first power play. In the second period, Jamie Langenbrunner jacked up Patrick Kaleta for the puck, took it down low, and got to the rebound (thanks to Bobby Holik getting in the way) to put it home.
Then the third period happened and everything changed. In the intermission, I'm sure Lindy Ruff informed his team that they basically need to win to stay alive in the playoffs. The Sabres' responded by throwing everything and the kitchen sink in the attack. Unfortunately, I'm not sure if this was Sutter's plan or the Devils' just responding, New Jersey held back and let the Sabres get at it. Because they brought so much pressure, the Devils often had to settle for only a dump and a quick line change to keep guys fresh. The offense slid to a near-stop, and the game became all about whether the Devils can protect the 3 goal lead.
Jochen Hecht got the Sabres on the board in the first half of the third period and got the crowd back into this one. The puck was loose, Oduya pushed Drew Stafford into Brodeur, and as Brodeur was getting up, Hecht slid it in. Later on, after some excellent penalty killing work (Devils were perfect on that front), the Sabres eventually got another break. Clark MacArthur found himself in front of Paul Martin and Martin Brodeur in the slot. He dangles the puck, steps over to get around both and he gets the Sabres within one with less than 4 minutes.
With the Sabres' season being on the line, the HSBC arena got even louder and wouldn't quiet until the end. The Devils continued to get blocks, disrupt plays, and have Brodeur make the necessary saves. Even so, Buffalo put 20 on net in the third period alone - more than they had all game! I don't think it was poor defending in this case, Buffalo just kept having shift after shift of strong offensive pressure because they were that desperate and the Devils couldn't hit them on a counter attack.
Alas, despite a scare from Colin White clearing the puck over the glass with 34 seconds left, the Devils kept the puck out of the zone enough to keep the Sabres from overwhelming the Devils at the end. New Jersey escapes with their 49th win - tying a franchise record, the crowd left in silence, and the Sabres' fate may have been sealed.
If they could do it all over again, I think the Devils really should have continued to attack in the third period. After a few shots early on, Mikael Tellqvist didn't get much to do. In the playoffs or on another night, the Devils could have easily been burned for an equalizer by sitting back. Likewise, the Devils' penalties tonight weren't very good ones for the most part - so the Devils could tighten up there.
Still, it's all about results and the Devils got it. Based on how the Devils played in the first two periods, I'm pretty confident in saying the slump is really over. I would like to see a more complete win against Toronto on Tuesday; but earning 4 points on a back-to-back set after getting 0 and 1 on the last two back-to-back sets of games is still laudable.