Game 56 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Buffalo Sabres

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM WFAN

The Game: The New Jersey Devils (31-20-4) at the Buffalo Sabres (24-25-6)

The Last Devils Game: On Saturday afternoon, the Devils hosted Florida to end a busy week for the home team. The game started off as good as it could get. Steve Bernier scored his first goal as a Devil, the Panthers didn't get a shot on net until about 9 minutes into the game, and the Devils generally looked superior. Then Dainius Zubrus took a lazy hooking penalty, the Panthers scored 15 seconds into their power play (a deflection by Sean Bergenheim), and the score not only became tied, but the Panthers started playing hockey. The Panthers played conservatively and the Devils' performance just faded over time. A defensive mishap in the second period led to Kris Versteeg getting all alone with Martin Brodeur with the puck in the slot. Believe it or not, he scored. The Devils couldn't respond and just struggled to get shots on net in the third period. An empty net goal sealed a disappointing 3-1 loss. As I described in my recap, the Devils started with a bang but ended with a whimper.

The Last Sabres Game: On Saturday night, the Sabres hosted Tampa Bay. The visitors dominated the shot count in the first and second periods, a combined 23-13 in the game's first 40 minutes. It took a little over 27 minutes for Steve Downie to open up the game's scoring when his wrist shot beat Ryan Miller. Later in the second, Steven Stamkos scored his 37th goal of the season to make it 2-0. The Sabres attempted to make a game of it in the third period, out-shooting Tampa Bay 14-5 and getting a goal from Jason Pominville 7:07 into the third. However, Mathieu Garon got everything else and so Buffalo lost 2-1. The loss is their first regulation loss in their last seven games. Over at Die by the Blade, David Oleksy has the numbers and the scoring chances from that loss.

The Last Devils-Sabres Game: The Devils hosted the Sabres in their final game before breaking for the All Star Game and related festivities. With the Devils losing their prior two games, the hope was that the Devils could head into the long break with a win. That didn't happen. A lethargic first period ended 1-0 Buffalo. The goal itself was a definite fluke. A missed shot (or dump-in) by Nathan Gerbe bounced off the backboards (or a glass support) and right into the front of the goal for Jordan Leopold to easily put into the net. From the second period on, it was just about all Devils hockey. A power play goal by Patrik Elias, also created off a fortunate bounce (Kurtis Foster's shot hitting Tyler Myers in the groin), tied it up about halfway through the second period. The Devils went on to heavily out-shoot the Sabres 28-14 and created several chances to take the lead in the run of play. Yet, Ryan Miller was excellent and stopped whatever he could. Miller almost single-handedly took this game to a shootout. Even that had to be extended beyond the usual three shooters and in the extra innings, Gerbe scored to make it a 2-1 shootout loss for the Devils. Kevin wasn't pleased with the game and explained why in his recap of the game.

The Goal: Shoot the puck for all three periods. The Buffalo Sabres do not have a very good defense. Only four teams in the NHL have larger shots against per game averages than their 31.3. They're not as bad at 5-on-5, but they're definitely below average with a SA/60 of 30. The Sabres are usually out-attempted in games as they have the fifth lowest close-score Fenwick% in the NHL with 47.12%. While they improve to 48.30% for close-score situations at home, they're still in the basement of the league. The Sabres are not a good defensive team; therefore, the Devils should have plenty of opportunity to get pucks on net. Considering a lack of shots on net in the third period (4 at evens, 3 on one power play) contributed quite a bit to the team's downfall against Florida, the Devils should make a point of it to attack the Sabres defense over and over for three periods. They were able to do it for the second, third, and overtime periods in the last Devils-Sabres game, it can be accomplished again. If they don't, then they may end up being on the wrong side of another grinder of a game.

As usual, I have more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. For an opposition perspective, please check out Die by the Blade.

Both teams have played well since their last meeting in mid-January. The Devils went on a five game winning streak after the All Star Game and lost in regulation for the first time since mid-January on Saturday. In that same time frame, the Sabres went 4-1-1 which included a big win over Boston (seriously, 6-0) and a more standings-based victory over Montreal. Both teams have reason to feel at least somewhat good about their games.

However, the Sabres can't afford to be good at this point in the season. They need to be fantastic and fast. They're sitting in a three-way tie for last in the East in points and that loss to Tampa Bay hurts their increasingly-dimmer cause to make the playoffs. John Vogl of the Buffalo News remarked after their most recent game that the Sabres are in a "must-win" mode. I can understand that belief. They're seriously deep in the hole in the standings. They have every reason to get desperate and play that way. With the trade deadline looming in the distance, players may do so to try or keep their spot on the team - or possibly in the hopes to get traded to a better squad.

One thing is for sure, Ryan Miller has played some good hockey as of late. Not unlike Martin Brodeur, Miller has stepped up his game over his last five starts with a mere 7 goals allowed on 157 shots. He earned two shutouts over that same time frame, too. Just like in the last Devils-Sabres game, it should be expected that Miller will continue to go from strength to strength. Hopefully, the Devils keep him as busy as possible.

The Devils forward lines should accomplish that in theory. According to Tom Gulitti's report in Monday's practice, Peter DeBoer re-united Adam Henrique with Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk, who featured in that last Devils-Sabres game. While Henrique was on a third line, in retrospect, it was done just to ease him back into the lineup. Parise, Henrique, and Kovalchuk have been quite successful in the past, so it's not a bad idea to re-unite them. The move puts Patrik Elias back with Petr Sykora and, sort-of surprisingly, David Clarkson. Sykora should benefit with Elias back on his line and Clarkson's been a real shot machine (annoying at times) so this move could help since Elias prefers to make the play rather than take the shot (also annoying at times). Dainius Zubrus is instead in Henrique's spot which makes for a rather big third line. I'm honestly curious how Alexei Ponikarkovsky, Steve Bernier, and Zubrus will turn out on the ice. In theory, they should be able to dominate play along the boards. A cycle involving all three would be a sight to see. Whether it'll be successful in practice is another question.

Curiously, the Devils called up a forward on Monday. Tom Gulitti reported that Stephane Veilleux joined the team prior to their trip to Buffalo. Normally, the Devils don't call up a forward unless they are intent on playing him. Given that Veilleux has been a defensive minded winger and he just called up, if he's going to play anywhere, then it's likely on the fourth line. That could mean Eric Boulton may be scratched. We'll see if it happens, but getting NHL players on the fourth line is a benefit not just for Jacob Josefson but for the team as a whole. I still wonder why Vladimir Zharkov hasn't been given a proper look (4 games in limited minutes doesn't count) but it is what it is.

The important thing is that the Devils forwards, regardless of combination or whether Veilleux replaces a goon, get shots on net tonight. The Sabres defense is definitely not as a stout as St. Louis (or New Jersey, for that matter). Only one defenseman has a positive on-ice Corsi value - Andrej Sekera. Their tough-minutes defenseman, Robyn Regher, gets pinned back on a regular basis. Tyler Myers plays a lot but he hasn't gotten much going. I will say this for Buffalo's blueline. They do have Christian Ehrhoff available for this game he's important. He's not only a big-minute player (ATOI: 23:40) but he also leads their defense in shots on net with 97 and in points with 21 (4 G, 17 A). He'll be a threat, as would Jordan Leopold should he jump up on the play and pot in a loose puck.

The bigger threats on Buffalo are at forward as they have two big ones. Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek absolutely, positively must be respected. Pominville is simply a great player. He leads Buffalo with 20 goals and 32 assists, he leads the team with 155 shots, he leads all forwards in Corsi Relative to Quality of Competition (and while negative, he's not at all like Regher), and he's just loaded with skill. Vanek doesn't have as many assists (23) or shots (140) as Pominville, but he's got a fantastic shot and 20 goals for his efforts. Vanek's a big threat around the net as he's able to get in close like Parise does and make goaltenders suffer.

Beyond Pominville and Vanek, the production gets a bit thin as Derek Roy and Luke Adam are the only Sabres with at least 10 goals and those two only have 11 and 10, respectively. That's not too good. What's worse is that Adam has been sent down to Rochester a few days ago. At least Roy is featured a lot in terms of ice time and he at least gets the play forward somewhat while usually playing with either Pominville or Vanek. The Devils' top defenders will see plenty of him. As for the rest of the forwards: Drew Stafford has been able to get quite a lot of shots on net with 142, so he's a concern - but bad shooting luck has held him to only 9 goals. Stafford isn't the only one with a seemingly low shooting percentage: Brad Boyes (4.1%) and Nathan Gerbe (5.3%) are both snakebit to a degree in this season. This doesn't include Ville Leino, who's shooting at around his career average of 8.7%. I hope Buffalo didn't sign him to a massive contract or something.

At least the Sabres are about average when it comes to success on special teams. Their power play converts 17.1% of the time, which is good for 19th in the NHL; and their penalty kill works 81.9% of the time, which ranks 15th in the NHL. The shots on the man advantage and disadvantage are more interesting. The Sabres have done a very good job in generating shots in 5-on-4 situations. Their SF/60 rate of 53.6 is one of the best in the league. However, the Sabres do a very good job making the goaltenders work in 4-on-5 situations. Their SA/60 rate of 52.9 is in the bottom third of the league - the tenth highest, to be precise. The Devils may be able to exploit that if they get the chance.

According to what Gulitti reported what Kovalchuk said after Saturday's loss, that was something the Devils didn't do enough of against Florida. That's a fair point as the Devils had their best offense in the third period on their only power play of the game. However, the Panthers are also one of the cleaner teams in the league. They have the third lowest amount of shorthanded situations in the NHL with 162. The Sabres are closer to the middle of the league (and the Devils) with 188. Maybe Kovalchuk's words will be heeded and the Devils will get some more PPs tonight. It could actually help.

One last thought: While the Sabres players are getting healthier, their head coach Lindy Ruff has been injured. He suffered broken ribs recently and has not been running practices or standing behind the bench at games. Instead, he's been in the press box. Ruff wants to be back behind the bench, but he's not sure according to this post by Mike Harrington at the Buffalo News. I'm not sure if this will have a significant effect on the game; but it's preferable for DeBoer to try and figure out James Patrick's in-game instructions as opposed to the far more experienced Ruff.

That's my take on tonight's game, now I want to know your opinion. Do you think the Devils will come out with more energy for much more of the game with two days off before this one? Will Martin Brodeur continue to do (good) work? How do you think the Devils should attack the Sabres and Ryan Miller? Can the Devils stop Pominville and Vanek from making too much of a mark on the game? Will the Devils draw more than one power play? Will the Devils take advantage of those power plays if they get it? Like Bernier before him, will Veilleux surprise people right away? Isn't this a game a perfectly romantic to spend an evening? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.

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