Devils Special Teams Cost Them in Loss to Sabres

I am writing this a little bit after midnight on April 23 as I had last second change of plans on Thursday and needed to DVR the game. Just got the chance to view it. I should note that I will be attending the game against Carolina this afternoon at Prudential Center and will get the report up for that one a little later than usual as a result too.

Anyway, the Devils continue to coast towards the end of the 2021-22 season dealing with injuries and the resulting changes to their lineup. They also continue to give some young players looks heading into the offseason and the AHL’s Calder Cup Playoffs.

On Thursday, they fell 5-2 to the Buffalo Sabres at Prudential Center as their special teams once again did them in.

Mike Morreale joined Erika Wachter and Bryce Salvador on the MSG+ pregame show and discussed a range of topics, including the 2022 NHL Draft, where Alexander Holtz could slot in in New Jersey if he gets a chance in the lineup next season as well as goaltending and where the Devils will go from here and Luke Hughes and whether he will play another year at Michigan or jump to the NHL next sesaon.

On the topic of Holtz, Morreale mentioned his use as the trigger man on the Devils’ power play with his booming shot. He will obviously not be a cure-all for the Devils’ power play but could definitely work in the right direction to improve it.

The lineup saw Mason Geertsen, Ty Smith and Colton White as the healthy scratches for the night. Smith and White were sitting as not only was Kevin Bahl playing on the blue line, but Ryan Graves returned from his laceration injury without Bahl coming out of the lineup and with Nikita Okhotiuk also playing and making his NHL debut – wearing number 82.

Okhotiuk teamed up with PK Subban on the third pairing and would go on to have a very memorable night. Graves was back on the second pairing with Damon Severson.

In goal, the Devils were back to Andrew Hammond, who stopped 23 of 28 total Buffalo shots for an .821 save percentage. He stopped one of the Sabres’ three shorthanded shots and their only power play shot. At five-on-five, he made 21 saves on 24 shots.

Nico Daws was sent back down to Utica to help out their playoff push and Jon Gillies was Hammond’s backup for the game.

The Sabres started Hammond’s crease mate in Ottawa, Craig Anderson on Thursday. Anderson, a veteran (to say the least) stopped 29 of the Devils’ 31 total shots for a .935 save percentage. He stopped all seven Devils shots on the power play and was 22-for-24 at even strength.

The Sabres ended the game 0-for-1 on the man advantage as a team while the Devils were 0-for-4 (with a hit post or two there as well, to boot).

The Devils were returning from a largely successful western road trip where they had gone 3-1-1 and had inserted themselves as spoilers in the Western Conference playoff picture.

But now they were playing a team that, like them, were far out of a playoff spot and playing out the string. Would they play down to their competition or rise above the situation and beat the rising Sabres, who were looking to win their third straight?

Hammond showed where he was right off the bat, as he stopped Rasmus Asplund on a great chance very early in the game.

In fact, the Sabres peppered the Devils goalie a lot during the first period. Casey Mittelstadt fed Alex Tuch with a great pass midway through the period that saw Tuch hit the pipe as the Devils were lucky not to be down early.

Converting on the power play continued to be a problem for New Jersey as well.

With 16:20 gone by in the first, Kyle Okposo was called for a hook, putting the Devils up a man and Jesper Bratt had a great chance in close where he used his quick hands to make a great move, but hit the post. Head coach Lindy Ruff called that play out particularly in his postgame press conference as he said that those were the kinds of chances that needed to be buried for the Devils to be successful.

Special teams would become a huge problem for the Devils as things fell apart in the second period.

It began with Rasmus Dahlin going off for tripping at 9:08 putting the Devils on the power play. At 9:37 gone, Dougie Hamilton was called for a slash to even things at 4-on-4. Mittelstadt was then called for a hook at 10:56 gone to put New Jersey up 4-on-3 for about 30 seconds.

When the first two penalties to Dahlin and Hamilton expired, the Devils were still up a man and that is where the trouble happened.

Okposo scored a shorthanded goal at 11:53 from Dahlin and Anderson just by dumping the puck into the Devils zone.

His dump in from center ice hit Tomas Tatar’s stick and changed sudden direction on Hammond, dipping down on him and beating him from, essentially 100-feet out.

It was a really tough break for the Devils and their goalie as Hammond had been playing well and that just took the wind right out of his sails.

With the Devils still up 5-on-4, at 12:40 gone by, Victor Olofsson gained a breakaway into the Devils zone with Tuch trailing.

Hammond stopped Olofsson, but Tuch just kind of backhandedly threw the rebound on net as he was curling away to go back on defense. The shot beat Hammond and the Sabres had their second shorthanded goal in 47 seconds – on the same penalty kill.

This was the first time the Devils had given up two shorties on the same power play since January 27, 2020 in a game at the Ottawa Senators that New Jersey eventually won.

This was going to be a steeper climb, however. Especially since Buffalo scored again at the 17:58 mark.

That one was at even strength and came when Olofsson got it to Dahlin at the top of the near faceoff circle. Olofsson broke his stick on the ensuring shot that redirected by Hammond and in off of the skate of Dawson Mercer as Mercer tried to block the shot.

In a very short sequence, it was 3-0 Sabres and things were looking dire for the Devils.

Jesper Boqvist gave them some hope at the very end of the second when he made it 3-1, however, to continue his goals-scored streak and move it to three-straight games.

Hamilton hit Michael McLeod with an outlet pass and McLeod was off up the right-wing side. He centered towards net with Boqvist crashing in. The big Swede got a swipe or two at the puck and was able to jam it home to put the Devils on the board with eight seconds to go in the second period.

The third period began with Tatar hitting the post early on and that would seem to spark the Devils a bit.

At 4:59 gone by, Okhotiuk, a defenseman not known much for his offensive prowess prior to coming to the NHL, scored his first NHL goal.

He had been taking shots all night, eventually ending with four finding their target at game’s end. This one certainly found its target as well.

A strong Devils forecheck kept the puck alive in the Buffalo zone. It eventually pinballed to Pavel Zacha, who passed to Janne Kuokkanen at the near faceoff circle. His shot was blocked by Anderson and the rebound found its way to Okhotiuk at the far circle.

He stepped into a blast and scored to make it 3-2 Sabres. Congratulations to him on his first NHL goal!

Buffalo, however, was not to be outdone.

At the 8:33 gone by mark, their own rookie defenseman, Owen Power – the first overall pick in last summer’s draft – notched his first NHL goal.

Tage Thompson fed Jeff Skinner, who broke into the Devils zone and got tied up with a New Jersey defender. He went down but made a pass from to Power from his knees. Power was coming up the left-side, took the pass and beat Hammond five-hole along the ice for his first NHL goal. Congrats to him as well as he made it 4-2 Buffalo.

Skinner would put the kibosh on the game for the Sabres at 16:03 gone by when Buffalo broke into the Devils zone on an odd-man rush. Olofsson made a backhanded pass to Thompson, who fed Skinner. Skinner finished and it was now 5-2 Buffalo, our final.

A rough loss for the Devils to take, for sure.

The Devils ended up outshooting the Sabres 31-28. Each team won 50-percent of the game’s faceoffs. McLeod led the centers with a 57-percent winning percentage personally (that’s all I can give you as the official game reports – including the faceoff logs – are apparently not available on the NHL’s game logs following a certain amount of time).

Buffalo ended with eight penalty minutes racked up as a team while the Devils had four. The Devils also had 22 hits to the Sabres 13 and seven blocked shots to Buffalo’s ten. Team giveaways saw the Sabres finish with 12 while the Devils had just seven.

For the first time in a long time, a forward, Nico Hischier, led Devils skaters in time on ice with 21:22 total (including 4:19 on the power play). Mercer led the forwards in shorthanded time with 1:33 out of his 16:25 of total time. He also logged 1:37 of PP time.

Amongst defensemen, Hamilton led in total time with 20:27 logged (including 4:27 on the power play). Graves and Bahl led in PK time with 2-minutes logged while killing penalties. Graves played 19:35 total TOI and 19 seconds on the PP while Bahl played 18:44 total TOI.

Hischier led in shots on goal with five. Nathan Bastian led in hits with four. Blocks were led by Graves with two. He also led in personal giveaways with two. Personal takeaways were led by Hischier with three.

Next up, the aforementioned tilt with the Carolina Hurricanes this afternoon. Puck drop is at 12:30 and I will try to get a review up on the site at a reasonable time. The game will be broadcast on MSG.

One other piece of business that I wanted to address before signing off for this game and that is Dawson Mercer having his number retired at his local arena back home in Newfoundland.

Mercer had the number 14 that he wore while playing in the Bay Arena Minor Hockey Association and with the Tri-Pen Ice AAA peewee and bantam teams retired at the Bay Arena in Bay Roberts, Newfoundland on Thursday according to Amanda Stein.

The ceremony took place in Bay Roberts while Dawson was busy playing against the Buffalo Sabres in Newark, New Jersey. It was a part of ceremonies to begin the U15 A Provincial Tournament according to Stein.

Stein did mention that Mercer sent in a video message since he was not able to attend in person.

Stein quoted Mercer as telling Nicolas Mercer (a reporter who covers central Newfoundland for the Saltwire Network): “That was my number growing up and now that number will be honored from my hockey in the past, from playing there, and it’s pretty cool.”

Mercer currently wears number 18 with the Devils. Congrats to him not only on this honor, but also on his amazing rookie season in the NHL so far!

I also wanted to address the sad news that came down yesterday (April 22) as, less than a week after losing NHL and Islander legend Mike Bossy to lung cancer, the same terrible disease claimed all-time Montreal Canadien great Guy Lafleur as well.

The hockey legend had been battling cancer publicly since making the announcement in 2019. Rest in peace to one of the greatest to even lace up a pair of skates.

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