Six long games without a win. Six straight games out of a larger slump where the Devils' shooting and Johan Hedberg's save percentage fell into the proverbial toilet. Six games where the Devils needed help from others to remain in the top eight in the East. Six games in a row where the breaks were few and far between, the silver linings were small, and the mistakes cost them huge. It almost happened again tonight with the Buffalo Sabres preying upon errors to eventually go up 2-0. I'll admit that my faith in the team coming back was low. I wasn't convinced when the Devils pulled within one when Adam Henrique put in a loose puck for a score. But a fat, juicy rebound kicked out by Jhonas Enroth went right to Patrik Elias with just over a minute left and tied it up. There was a comeback. There was at least one point. And a combination of Hedberg, David Clarkson, and Elias made it two in the shootout. It could have been seven losses tonight. There were points where it should have been seven straight losses. Instead, the streak is dead. The Devils won their first game in two weeks.
While the Devils out-shot the Sabres 33-25, they couldn't seemingly buy a goal for much of the game. Elias got robbed on a glorious rebound off a rush in the first period. Clarkson's cold streak continued when Enroth somehow denied him of a close rebound in the second period. They had two earlier power plays that did nothing of note. Somehow the third power play did, with a fortuitous bounce for Henrique off a block on an Ilya Kovalchuk shot. Henrique picked the far corner and gave the team a lifeline. Overall they got plenty of shots on Enroth and attempts toward Enroth, they forced him to be great, and, sure enough, he was up until his last play of the game. Enroth hurt himself diving in vain at Elias' shot off a rebound he really left out there. Ryan Miller replaced him for one minute, overtime, and the shootout. While Miller owned the Devils in the last shootout on March 2, Clarkson torched him high and Elias pulled a sick-nasty move to curl around the keeper to seal the win.
Defensively, allowing only 25 shots is pretty good. But it was really feast or famine for the Sabres tonight, depending on what the Devils did in their own zone. Their general approach to attack the Devils was to come in wide, throw the puck across the slot in the hopes of finding a bounce or someone, and battle for it. The Devils defense either won the puck without an issue and ended the attack without much drama, or red jerseys would be standing around, looking lost as Hedberg was forced to come up big. The goals against included a wide-open Thomas Vanek in the slot on a power play firing in a one-timer and a Bryce Salvador turnover that turned into a shot on net by Andrej Sekera which led to Brian Flynn putting home the rebound. When the Devils were in position, then there was no issue. When they weren't, well, it could have gone a lot worse tonight if it wasn't for Moose's play, a few bounces off Sabres' sticks, and, on two occasions, the goal frame.
But it wasn't worse and the offense somehow got a few rebounds that they actually did put in the back of the net to at least make it a game. The fans were thrilled and the sellout crowd really got into it when the Devils finally got on the scoreboard through the very end. I wouldn't blame anyone for thinking that it was over after Flynn's goal. I felt the same way, too. Nevertheless, they found a way to win and that's the important thing. Their puck luck is still poor and they have plenty to work on, especially in terms of giving up odd man rushes on the counter-attack. The slump is by no means over. At most, it's a breather from the disappointment. Yet, they did win tonight and that cannot be overstated enough. After six losses in a row, any win is worth it and so we should take it and appreciate it. I know I do.
The Opposition Opinion: Andy Boron hit the highlights of the game from the Sabres' perspective in his recap at Die by the Blade.
The Game Highlights: For the first time in a while, you have every reason to want to see the game highlights over at NHL.com. It definitely includes the shootout goals, which you don't want to miss:
Legendary Patrik & Two Who Played Well with Patrik: Elias' performance on Tuesday wasn't very good but I figured he'd turn it around. He started on a line with David Clarkson and Adam Henrique and I do believe Peter DeBoer kept them together throughout the game. They were definitely the most consistently offensive group of forwards for New Jersey. Henrique had a strong game with five shots on net out of seven attempts (the other two were misses) along with going 10-for-18 on faceoffs. Clarkson got three shots out of five attempts, which is a step up from recent games. His shootout goal essentially won the game and while it doesn't count among his total, it had to make him feel good after not scoring since the middle of February.
But Elias was the standout player on that line in my eyes. He got five shots on net out of six, with the one non-shot being a miss and that doesn't include hitting the crossbar before . For a guy who's known as a distributor, he was making things happen all night long. Elias got robbed early in the game but he got his revenge with that all-important equalizer on a long rebound from Enroth. He sealed the shootout win with a fantastic move that beat Miller silly. It wasn't all glitter and gold for the legendary forward as he was present for both goals against tonight. He was left on a proverbial island before Vanek's power play goal, something that he couldn't do much about. The goal by Flynn, though, came after the puck touched off Elias' stick and Flynn just buried it with one touch. That wasn't so good. But Elias more than made up the error in my eyes. He attacked, he set-up shots, and he scored a big one late in regulation and a big one in the shootout to ensure the win. He's been the team's best player this season and that one moment aside, tonight was further evidence to the argument.
A Note About the Equalizer: I really liked the patience showed by Marek Zidlicky in the neutral zone with the puck as time ticked off. The Devils were going for a change and Hedberg left his crease, waiting to go if/when the puck went forward. He just held back, waited until fresh guys all got on the ice, and then made a good diagonal pass to Andy Greene, which led to him passing it in to Clarkson. Clarkson's shot yielded a humongous rebound for Elias that he scored on. The league does not hand out tertiary assists, but the play wouldn't have happened without his decision with the puck.
The Obligatory Kovalchuk Section: This was one of those games where Ilya Kovalchuk did a lot of good by my eyes but not so much on the scoresheet. #17 was present in carrying the puck up-ice and gaining the zone himself by imposing his will. Especially in the third period when the team was down 2-0, Kovalchuk took some of those advances in his own hands and did a good job getting the puck in there. Yet, the shots didn't match up with the effort. Yes, there were shifts where he would pass it off, but from his own stick he only got two of his shots on net. Five attempts of his were blocked. Now, one did help Henrique score a goal tonight; but the record shows he was somewhat inefficient. I liked what I saw from him in terms of effort and while he got an assist, he's going to have to force a few less shots to get back to his scoring ways. Like much of the team, he's close but he's not quite there.
Pro-Tip: Kovalchuk hears it from fans when he passes instead of shooting when he has a lane. Tonight, Travis Zajac gets that criticism as he passed up an open shot on an early 3-on-2 and the pass just went into a defender and led to a freeze by Enroth. We know you're cold right now. You're not going to get out of it that way. Just shoot it, man.
Captain Pylon: Peter DeBoer was prepared to scratch Mark Fayne and Adam Larsson tonight. Fayne got in due to an apparent injury to Henrik Tallinder during the pre-game warm-ups. While I wouldn't say Fayne played particularly well tonight, there was another defender who made a better, stronger case for a night off: Bryce Salvador.
Salvador's turnover and subsequent not-defense led to Flynn's goal. On the team's second penalty kill of the night, Salvador got beat at the boards, which is otherwise not a big deal. What was a big deal was that he followed the puck instead of dropping back to the center when he saw his partner, Fayne, go into the corner to battle for said puck. This left Elias on an island when Tyler Ennis won the puck and in open space to Hedberg's left. Salvador didn't make the biggest mistake but just like on Tuesday night, his decision making played a role in hurting the team. In general, Salvador struggled quite a bit at times along with Zidlicky in his own end and he was present for the shifts of not-defense that nearly opened the game up in the second period. That's a problem considering he played 22:33 tonight, with 20:07 at even strength. In comparison, Fayne only got 14:49 and often paired with Anton Volchenkov.
Salvador continues to get big minutes and play against top competition even though he struggles against them. I know that DeBoer or most coaches won't bench their captain. I wish one of the other defensemen stepped up in a big way to justify a top-four spot so he can get less ice time and easier competition.
The Good Fresh Legs: Peter Harrold played his first game in a little over a month and he did as well as you could expect. He had some troubles with the puck at times, but he was largely active and played a significant amount of time tonight. Harrold was on the ice for 21:44 of the game, including some spot duty on special teams. He had two shots on net and consistently got the puck in deep from the point. I did feel bad for him in overtime as he got laid out along the boards. He went for a poke while on the ground which actually worked a bit, but the Sabres recovered and no one covered for him on defense. It led to a 3-on-1 rush that made the fans think the game was about to be lost. Thankfully, it didn't end the game because Jason Pominville hit the post. It wouldn't have been his fault had it gone in, but it would be a big downer after an otherwise solid performance. I would like to see him play in some capacity this weekend, I think he earned another game.
Stefan Matteau got moved around the lineup a bit tonight but he was otherwise acceptable in the 10:20 he did play tonight. He only had a shot though and he got pinned back a few times against the strong line of Vanek, Pominville, and Cody Hodgson. Still, not too bad and I suspect we'll see him again.
The Bad Fresh Legs: I wasn't impressed with Anton Volchenkov tonight. I know he's not fast and it showed on the ice. I know he likes to get physical and it showed when he joined two Devils to try and win a puck from Brian Flynn. He tripped him for a penalty that the Sabres later scored on. I know he doesn't bring offense to the table and he didn't. I know when he did play, he played limited minutes and he did tonight with only 13:57 at even strength and 15:21 total. I know he's not better than Adam Larsson. I just hope the team's win keeps a superior defender on the bench so A-Train can plod along on a third pairing more often. I would not be unhappy or surprised if he's scratched this weekend.
Debuting A New Bottom Six Right Winger: Tom Kostopoulos was picked up off waivers yesterday by the Devils partially because he's a right winger with a right-handed shot. He didn't look too out of place for a fourth-line caliber player. He got into trouble a few times with his line in his own end; but he also had some strong forechecking. I thought he did his best work alongside Ryan Carter and Stephen Gionta. The coach must have liked what he'd seen as Kostopoulos got 10:33 of ice time and didn't hurt the team too badly. I suppose that's acceptable for a first game given his bottom six capability. I would have liked to see him have more than one shot attempt, but that may come as he acclimates himself to the team. The fact that DeBoer was immediately comfortable giving him double the usual minutes for Krys Barch makes me hopeful that the days of a regular enforcer may be ending.
Outshooting or How Special Teams Made an Impact Without Shooting a Lot: The Devils out-shot the Sabres in every period at even strength except for overtime. It went 10-5, 8-7, and 10-7 before a 3-3 overtime period for a total of 31-22 differential. In regulation, the Devils carried much of the play in the first period and in stretches in the third period. I was pleased with what they did in general.
This also meant both teams didn't generate a lot on their power plays since total shots were 33-25. They didn't have to since Vanek scored on Buffalo's second power play shot of the night and Henrique scored on the Devils' second power play shot of the night. They were good shot locations from good spots and the execution from both scorers' were great. Other than those shots, the PK units for both sides were very solid. In time, the difference at evens will lead to more decisive scores. I don't think Buffalo got enough attempts at evens tonight to make up the difference. Until then, well, the Devils should make a point of it to not leave guys like Vanek wide open in the slot regardless of situation.
Game Respecting Game: Vanek definitely made things happen. Whereas his linemates Cody Hodgson and Jason Pominville each struck iron once, Vanek was the only one to score and did so on a power play unit that has been remarkably unsuccessful this season. Vanek had Buffalo's other power play shot and two others at evens out of seven total attempts. Hodgson and Pominville each had two shots on net. They did not have as many attempts as Hodgson missed one additional shot and Pominville had three misses. That line caused the most problems regularly for the Devils. It shouldn't be a big surprise as it's a line of Buffalo's three best forwards.
Brian Flynn, the Sabres' other scorer, had a strong night with three other shots to go with his goal. He also drew two penalties; the first ended a power play for the Devils and the second led to their first score of the night. I don't know about his status on the roster, but tonight certainly helped cement it.
Jhonas Enroth came into this game cold and with some bad games behind him. It would be unfair to him to say that the Devils made him look good. No, the Devils forced him to be good and he rose to the challenge. It's frustrating to see and adds to the confirmation bias that the Devils make backups look wonderful. But he did the job with his pads - which were quite audible on saves, I guess the Devils shot hard quite a bit at him - and reflexes. He absolutely robbed Elias and Clarkson earlier in the game, he had several other important stops, and it was a shame to see him leave injured after Elias' goal. This could have been his ticket to getting more starts but now that's entirely in doubt. I will say he did very well.
Redemption: Hedberg had a very good game tonight. It wasn't ideal. His first big play was losing the puck behind the net due to a forecheck by Brian Flynn and then boxing him out with his body to prevent him from going after the puck. It was a textbook interference call, something I've never seen from a goaltender before. It was bad and some of his plays with the puck were dicey, to say the least.
Yet, it was a night of redemption for a goalie who has been lit up as of late. Neither goal against can be blamed on his shoulders. He did benefit from the post twice. But, more often than not, Moose came up big when the Devils got lazy in their own end. Hedberg was the key reason why the second period ended at 0-1 instead of 0-2 or 0-3. It could have been 0-1 earlier if it wasn't for late pad stop on John Scott open in the slot. Watch the highlight video and you'll see plenty of Moose making stops he should make as well as tough stops - even in the shootout. Given the last two and half weeks, that's big for him and the team.
A Last Point: The Devils got two for the first time in a while. They had to come back from a two goal deficit, which was a huge undertaking given how hard goals have come to this team in recent weeks. They had to not make a critical error in overtime and they didn't. They had to win their first shootout of the season to do it, and they did. I'm still smiling about all of that and so should you. Wins feel good. The Devils badly needed one and they got it. I don't think one can be picky about how it happened after six non-wins in a row. Let's see if they can build on it and attempt to get a second win this Saturday. There's still a slump to overcome.
Now you know my take on tonight's game, what's your take? Did you think the Devils played a good game tonight or are you more pleased with the result than the performance? Did you believe the Devils were going to come back from a 0-2 deficit (and be honest about it)? How thrilled were you when Elias scored that equalizer? How about that sweet shootout move to seal it? What do you want to see in Carolina on Saturday night based on tonight's game? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on this win - finally, a win! - in the comments. Thanks to everyone who followed along in the gamethread and on Twitter with @InLouWeTrust. Thank you for reading.