Put out a good performance. The Devils already clinched the Atlantic Division so they'll either finish second or third in the Eastern Conference. Since the Devils don't absolutely, positively have to win this game, I just want to see a solid performance by the Devils. Nothing too crazy, no injuries, and nothing that would cause anyone too much concern going into the postseason. It's not about the result, it's about keeping momentum - that's what I think is the most crucial aspect to look for in the big picture.
I suppose I can't complain too loudly. I got exactly that. The New Jersey Devils' 2-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres was an weird game to witness. Weird because both teams changed their lines in-game to varying levels of success. Weird because a regulation win by New Jersey would and did grant them a first round playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers. I certainly felt a bit conflicted during the second and third periods.
Weird, I felt the two teams canceled each other out in terms of taking initiative. Despite the big difference in shot totals, I didn't think New Jersey soundly outplayed Buffalo - I think it was more of a consequence of the Devils' defense not being nearly as much as the Sabres' did. All the same, that the game was tied for most of the game was fitting.
Almost fittingly, the game was won in the final seconds of the third with an empty net power play goal. The game was 1-1, and the Sabres stupidly took two calls near the end of the game. Granted, the game going into extra time doesn't help them - that would lock up the #2 spot for New Jersey. So I understood why they took a huge risk at the end from a standings standpoint. Still, the Sabres pulled Patrick Lalime during a penalty kill and conceded possession at the blueline - leading to an easy goal for Jamie Langenbrunner. I've never seen anything like that before. A weird ending all the same if only for how rare this happens in a game.
Still, the Devils put out a good performance on both sides of the puck, Martin Brodeur had another solid game, and the Devils forced Lalime to be great - and he was. Among other arguments you can make about the Devils, you can't say they ended the season poorly.
Today's GameThread continued to raise funds for TEAMJLO. A big thanks goes to Zachary Zielonka and the Die by the Blade community for taking part in the GameThread here. With all of the activity, 874 comments were made - resulting in $131.10 raised. Adding $5 the Associate gave to me at today's game (Thanks) as well as the $48.30 raised from Saturday's game, that's a total of $184.40. Not bad on a weekend of two Devils home games. The donation has been made; I thank you all.
I have some additional commentary on tonight's game after the jump. Do go over to Die by the Blade for Sabres-based opinions about tonight's game. Here's David Oleksy's recap. As always, for links to all of the stats, please check out the recap at NHL.com.
First, here is the highlights video of today's game from NHL.com.
Notice that there were 9 for Patrick Lalime's saves alone. Lalime played great tonight and it was a shame that the Sabres didn't give him a whole lot of support. While the Devils didn't control the game or were vastly superior than Buffalo with respect to puck movement, the Buffalo defense allowed plenty. They didn't play as well of a positional game as New Jersey. From what I saw, and at least partially justified by these numbers at Vic Ferrari's Time on Ice site, Tyler Myers and Henrik Tallinder got beat a lot. As a result, Buffalo had shifts where they got the puck in deep on the Devils and came out of it with no shots on net; whereas the Devils would force Lalime to make a stop constantly. I think that's why the Devils went out and out-shot the Sabres outright 34-23.
Let me put it another way. In a close game, the Devils found ways to generate more shots, more scoring chances, and put more pressure on the Sabres even without necessarily dominating the puck itself. That's a pretty big positive to take into the playoffs. The 14 shots in the third period alone showed that the Devils didn't let the tied score get to them, which is encouraging when those situations do arise.
This isn't to say the Devils made no errors. There was one glaring fault in the third period that Buffalo should have scored on. Tyler Ennis may feel a bit foolish that a Martin Brodeur turnover behind the net led to him getting the puck in front of an empty net in the third period. Ennis missed, or rather Paul Martin may have gotten a stick on it to deflect it over. Either way, it was a gift and the Sabres couldn't open the package to reap the reward. A lucky break. But those breaks were few and far between, so full credit to Martin Brodeur and the defense for making that happen.
The one time the Sabres did break through, it was Tomas Vanek right in front of the net off a loose puck. Not much Brodeur could do at point-blank range. In retrospect, someone should have been blocking him out; but he's been hot and came in unnoticed so credit him for doing what we've seen Zach Parise do throughout his career. The Devils responded well to the goal with a few shots before Travis Zajac put home a rebound right past the left post, the only time Lalime was beaten - the one chance where Lalime really didn't have a strong chance at stopping the puck.
In terms of players who stuck out, well, Patrik Elias had another great night at the faceoff dot. The Devils as a whole were beaten repeatedly at draws, as the Sabres won 28 of 48 total draws tonight. But Elias stood out by going 10 for 13, which is great for the normally-poor drawing faceoff taker. In terms of an overall game, Travis Zajac had the best night with 5 shots on net as well as a goal. OK, his faceoffs were poor (6 for 15), but he was excellent at both ends and generated quite a bit of offense. On defense, I felt Andy Greene really stood out in his 18:58 of action. He was calm with the puck, made several smart clearances, and contributed to the offensive effort with 3 shots on net. Not bad at all.
Ilya Kovalchuk passed up a few chances to shoot, but he definitely put several on net (5) and a few that left a few bruises on some Sabres (3 attempts blocked). Interestingly, the players around Kovalchuk keep changing but I have come to a conclusion about what Jacques Lemaire should do. First, the center doesn't matter so much because Kovalchuk has played well next to Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac at center. Second, the right winger really needs to be someone like Dainius Zubrus or David Clarkson. Jamie Langenbrunner had a more involved game (3 SOG) and scored the empty-net game winning goal; but the second line put on more pressure when Clarkson was winning board battles at that spot. Just something I've noticed over the past few games. I suppose the experimenting as well as Lemaire's insistence of him playing on entire power plays led to his 20:24 of ice time, the second most behind Martin Skoula's 20:35.
I will say it's a concern that the lines really aren't set by game 82 but if the team continues to put out performances like this, then perhaps it's not much.
All the same, I leave the reactions to you all. The Devils are going into the playoffs with two straight wins, 4 wins out of their last 5 games, and finish second in the Eastern Conference. That's positive for certain. Please share your thoughts, concerns, complaints, corrections, and other feelings in the comments.