Sports are weird. The Devils had won five straight games and six out of their last seven. They are in the hunt for first place in the Metropolitan Division, the toughest division in the Eastern Conference, if not the entire NHL. The Devils were rolling this holiday season and nothing seemed to be able to derail them.
Then along come the Buffalo Sabres, last place in the Eastern Conference, falling behind in the much weaker Atlantic Division. They had won only one overtime game this year and were just struggling overall. But, instead of the script going the way it should have – the Devils winning on home ice and sweeping a homestand of more than five games for the first time in their 35 years of existence – the Sabres were the ones who prevailed, in OT, 4-3. They came back from a two goal deficit and a little bit of help from instant replay to top the Devils.
Buffalo is currently on an extended road trip (one which includes a “home” game at Citi Field against the Rangers in the Winter Classic) due to the IIHF World Junior Championship taking over their facilities in Western New York.
A roster move to inform you about: Dalton Prout cleared waivers and was assigned to Binghamton of the AHL. The Devils had to make this move after the Christmas break roster freeze and getting everyone back and healthy. Also, Prout had not played since October or so, so it was only fair to get him some playing time in the American League. Tonight, Jimmy Hayes, Ben Lovejoy and Drew Stafford were the healthy scratches.
In goal, Cory Schneider was making another start for the Devils. He has gotten back to being his usual workhorse self this season. He made 25 saves on 29 Sabres shots. Facing him was Robin Lehner who made 35 saves on the night on 38 Devils shots. The Devils saw Lehner in relief earlier in the season up in Buffalo in what was a rout in favor of New Jersey.
The Devils got the scoring kicked off 13:35 into the first period. Damon Severson broke into the Buffalo zone and gave it to Pavel Zacha. He dished to Stefan Noesen, who jammed it in on Lehner. Miles Wood was trailing and was relentless in the goal mouth scramble, continuing to chip away at the puck and finding it loose and putting it by Lehner to make it 1-0 Devils.
That lead would last until 5:27 into the second period when an old friend struck back at the Devils. Jacob Josefson scored his second of the season on a partial breakaway off an intercepted pass in the Sabres’ zone to tie things up at one. He got an assist from Jordan Nolan.
From there the Devils seemed to take control of the game. It began when Marcus Johansson scored at 8:34 on the power play. Zemgus Girgensons had gone off for holding setting that up and Johansson skated the puck into the Sabres’ zone. He gave to Jesper Bratt at the top of the far faceoff circle, who passed to Sami Vatanen at the point. Vatanen passed down to Nico Hischier at the near half wall. Hischier moved back and forth, drawing some pressure to him and then gave back to Vatanen at the point. He one-touched a pass to Johansson, who was lurking at the far faceoff dot. Johansson one-timed a shot by Lehner to give the Devils back the lead, 2-1.
That power play goal made the Devils 1-for-2 on the night. They had one shot on those two power plays. Buffalo was 1-for-3 with five shots.
The Devils would add to their lead 14:55 into the second period when John Moore struck for his fifth of the year. It happened when the puck was dumped into the Sabres’ zone and Nathan Beaulieu tried to wind the puck around the boards. It was cut off by Brian Gibbons, who gave to Moore at the near point. He fired and beat Lehner to make it 3-1 Devils.
From there, however, the wheels would begin to fall off for the Devils. It began, as it usually does, with a goal given up late in the period. Jack Eichel scored from Jake McCabe and Girgensons at the 18:05 mark of the second period. Eichel had redirected McCabe’s shot to make it 3-2 Devils. The Sabres would then tie things up at three when Eichel scored his second of the game 11:04 into the third period from Kyle Okposo and Rasmus Ristolainen. That goal came on the power play as Vatanen was sitting for slashing. Eichel would nearly notch the hat trick when he would hit the crossbar with less than two minutes left in the game.
Then the weird part of the game, as the Devils had seemingly retaken the lead at 7:42 of the third when Taylor Hall skated in and beat Lehner with a beautiful move. Sabres coach Phil Housley challenged the goal, claiming Hall was offsides when he entered the Sabres zone. They won, as the replay showed that Hall was essentially bobbling the puck in the air when he entered the zone, meaning he did not have full control of it. It was a nice play on Hall’s part, but was deemed no goal by the officials. The game was still tied up at three.
So, after all of that, time in regulation expired and we were headed off to overtime. It was Buffalo’s second straight OT game, having lost to the Islanders the other night. The OT period was amazing, with action going back-and-forth for about two and a half minutes until, at 2:37, Ristolainen found twine behind Cory off an assist to Ryan O’Reilly to make it a 4-3 final.
So, some stats on the night. Vatanen was the ice time leader, eating up 23:15. He also led the Devils in shots on goal with a whopping eight. Steven Santini led in hits with four, while Travis Zajac and Moore both led in blocks with two apiece. The Devils won only 39-percent of their faceoffs as a team.
Next up, tomorrow, a showdown with the Washington Capitals in Washington. The Devils actually still lead the Metro Division, having gained their 50th point tonight. The Caps will be a stiff test and something the Devils have not seen in a long time. That will also be the second half of a back-to-back (the Capitals did not play tonight, making things tougher for the Devils) and the final game for the Devils in the 2017 calendar year. We will see you then.