It had been three weeks since the New Jersey Devils had won a game. Granted, there were some postponed games in there and the mandatory Christmas break which was extended a bit due to COVID precautions. But the fact remained that the Devils were mired in a six-game winless streak nonetheless.
However, they came out of the break rested and (largely) healthy and ended up hanging on to defeat the Buffalo Sabres 4-3 at the Keybank Arena.
The Devils were playing in their first game since December 19, a 3-2 loss to Pittsburgh at the Prudential Center. That seemed like eons ago as they had three games postponed in the time between that game and tonight.
In the time being, the Devils got everyone back from COVID Protocol while only adding Tomas Tatar, Jon Gillies and – earlier today – Jimmy Vesey to the list. Back were Nico Hischier, Christian Jaros (who was a healthy scratch tonight along with Mason Geertsen), PK Subban, Ryan Graves and Jesper Boqvist.
Also, with the re-establishment of Taxi Squads temporarily from now to the All-Star Break, the Devils recalled Marian Studenic, Boqvist and Kevin Bahl to the Taxi Squad. Only Studenic played tonight, suiting up on the left side on the fourth line with Michael McLeod and Nate Bastian.
In goal, Mackenzie Blackwood was also back from his neck injury. He started tonight and made 19 saves on 22 Sabres shots for a nightly .864 save percentage. All of those shots and saves came at five-versus-five as Buffalo went 0-for-1 on their only power play chance and did not register a shot.
Facing him for the Sabres was Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and the Finnish goaltender had a busy night. He stopped 38 of the Devils’ total of 42 shots against for a .905 save percentage on the night. He let in one of the Devils’ two power play shots as New Jersey was 1-for-2 on the man advantage and made 37 saves on 40 shots at five-against-five.
Some notes on the Sabres’ lineup tonight as Alex Tuch, acquired in November in the Jack Eichel trade from Vegas but injured, played in his first game for Buffalo tonight. Also in the lineup as a defenseman and playing his second NHL game was Casey Fitzgerald. He is the son of Devils General Manager Tom Fitzgerald.
The Sabres, however, were without their head coach Don Granato, who is in COVID Protocol. Filling in for him was assistant coach Matt Ellis.
The Devils broke through early, on the power play no less, as that seems to be starting to click for them of late.
Kyle Okposo was called for a high-stick against Graves 4:01 into the game setting the Devils up on 5-on-4 advantage.
Just 42 seconds into the power play, Hischier dug the puck out from behind the Sabres net and got it to Jack Hughes on the perimeter. Hughes quickly moved it to Dougie Hamilton, setting him up for a one-timer at the point. Hamilton blasted a shot low with Bastian as the screen in front. Hamilton’s shot beat Luukkonen cleanly to make it 1-0 Devils.
The Devils would double their lead before the end of first period was up when Jesper Bratt scored. Hughes passed the puck from the half wall on the far side to Subban at the point. Subban let loose a bomb of a shot and the rebound came to Bratt, who was crashing in through the slot. Bratt gathered the puck and shot from a sharp angle, beating Luukkonen to make it 2-0 Devils.
That goal came with 11:48 gone in the first period.
A few minutes later, at 14:56 gone, Brett Murray of the Sabres tried to spark them back into the game when he scrapped with Jonas Siegenthaler. Both received five-minutes for fighting with Murray also picking up the instigator minor to put the Devils on the power play.
Of note on that power play, Damon Severson hit the crossbar, coming oh-so-close to giving the Devils a three-goal lead.
Buffalo would survive that penalty kill and would get back into the game more explosively in the second period – courtesy of one Tage Thompson.
Thompson would cut the Devils lead in half just 33 seconds into the second period. Rasmus Dahlin won a board battle on the near side and got the puck to Tuch at the point. Tuch shot with Thompson camped in front of Blackwood and redirected Tuch’s shot by the Devils’ netminder to make it 2-1.
Less than three minutes later, at 3:17 gone by in the second period, Thompson struck again for his second of the night.
Dahlin poked the puck away from a Devils puck carrier in the Buffalo zone and air mailed a high pass to Thompson, who was in behind the Devils defense. Thompson broke in on a clear breakaway on Blackwood and beat him glove side to knot the game up at two goals apiece.
And that would take us in to a possibly decisive third period.
It would begin with Hughes notching his third point of the night – this time a goal – 4:28 into the period.
Yegor Sharangovich took a shot from the top of the near faceoff circle and the rebound came out to Hughes, who was fighting off a check through the slot to get to the loose puck. He got to it and put the puck behind Luukkonen to make it 3-2 Devils.
Bratt had the secondary assist and Hughes now had a goal and two assists for his first multi-point game since April of 2021 (his 13th in the NHL overall).
At the 6:50 mark of the third, Sharangovich would pad the Devils lead out a little bit more when Bratt moved the puck to Ty Smith at the point. Smith got off a quick wrister that was going wide of the net. However, Sharangovich was fighting in front to gain position, corralled the wide shot and redirected it into the Buffalo net behind Luukkonen to make it 4-2 Devils.
Things have not been that easy for the Devils this season, though and tonight was no exception.
The Sabres would cut the lead to one goal at 14:38 gone by in the third when Ethan Prow, playing in his first NHL game, scored his first NHL goal.
Mark Pysyk chipped the puck to Victor Olofsson at the point. His shot was initially stopped by Blackwood, but he could not handle the rebound and Prow, who was, again, fighting for position in front of the net, was able to slide the puck underneath Blackwood while cutting in the near side.
The score was now 4-3 Devils and we would be in for a battle to end the game.
The Sabres pulled Luukkonen with just over 1:30 left in regulation. The Devils, despite this, held on to pick up the win.
The Devils outshot the Sabres 42-22 and won 51-percent of the game’s faceoffs. Hischier led the Devils centers with a personal 67-percent winning clip.
The Sabres racked up 19 penalty minutes as a team while the Devils held it to seven. Buffalo outhit the Devils 17 to six. The Sabres had more blocked shots at 15 to the Devils’ 13. Buffalo had eight giveaways to New Jersey’s three as a team.
Siegenthaler totaled 22:21 of ice time (including 1:07 on the PK) while Hamilton led the defensemen in power play time with 2:08 on the PP included in his 20:17 of total TOI.
For the forwards, Hughes led in total ice time with 17:52 (including 2:08 on the power play). McLeod led the forwards in shorthanded time (1:07 included in his 14:59 total TOI) while Bastian (14:29 total time on ice) and Hischier (16:40 of total time on ice including 48 seconds of PK time) also played 2:08 on the power play with Hughes.
Hughes (one goal, two assists) and Bratt (one goal, two assists) led the Devils with three points each while Sharangovich (one goal, one assist) had two points. Hughes also led in shots on goal with six. Pavel Zacha and Subban both had five shots to come in second in that category.
Bastian and Siegenthaler each had two hits to lead there. Graves, in his return to the lineup, had five blocked shots, leading in that category. Giveaways were kept to a minimum as Dawson Mercer, Hughes and Smith each had one to lead while takeaways were led by Marian Studenic, Jesper Boqvist and Hughes with each as well.
Next up, the Devils will return home for a 1 PM matinee at Prudential Center on New Year’s Eve against the Edmonton Oilers. That game will be shown on MSG+ locally.
Things, of course, have been subject to change and we will keep you posted should they do so.
Until then, enjoy the rest of your week everyone!