(WGR 550) - The Buffalo Sabres played the way Ralph Krueger has been begging them to play right from the opening faceoff on Saturday, and it resulted in a 3-2 win over the New Jersey Devils, breaking their four-game losing streak.
The game really wasn’t that close, as the Devils scored two third period goals.
As soon as the puck was dropped, the Cody Eakin line went into the offensive zone and stayed there. What helped the attack is Jake McCabe was active from the defense, and New Jersey didn’t no how to handle the attack.
On the second shift, Rasmus Dahlin activated, made a sweet move to cut into the slot and almost beat Mackenzie Blackwood between the pads.
Buffalo’s defense was key all afternoon at both ends of the rink. I remember one play in the second period where there was a feed right off the post to Blackwood’s left and it was Brandon Montour looking for the tap in. There was one time that both Montour and Dahlin were in the zone together.
The biggest key to this victory was Buffalo got on the board first. It was only the second time that happened all season. The first time was in a 6-1 win in Philadelphia.
Even though Buffalo was so good in the first period, the team only led 1-0, and you had that feeling that they blew so many Grade-A opportunities, something goofy would happen to let New Jersey score and the game would turn. Instead, Buffalo built on its first period and scored twice in the second and led 3-0, 40 minutes into the game.
The other thing that allowed the Sabres to dominate zone time is the fact there were Sabres around Blackwood for almost the whole game. On the first goal, Eric Staal won the faceoff and didn’t stand there and admire his work, he went to the net so Blackwood never saw Colin Miller’s shot from the point. The goal was Miller’s first point in five games, and Staal’s assist was his first assist in seven games. Taylor Hall got his first point in five games as he got the puck over to Miller.
On the second goal, Jack Eichel won the draw back to Montour. He went across to Matt Irwin, but while that was going on, Sam Reinhart sprinted to the slot and got there in time to tip in Irwin’s shot. This was only the second time Reinhart had scored in nine games. It was Irwin’s first point with the Sabres, and Montour’s third point of the season.
Buffalo went 1-for-1 on the power play, and it was Eichel and Reinhart combining with Dahlin assisting. Dahlin now has points in four out of six games. This goal, again, was because of Reinhart’s instincts in front of the net. He was alone in front, but realized he needed to move two steps over to give Eichel a clean passing lane and the captain made no mistake, providing the tap in for No. 23.
Buffalo generated numerous chances, including Jeff Skinner, who was back getting great opportunities because he was playing with Curtis Lazar and Riley Sheahan.
Two more things stuck out to me.
The Sabres blocked 18 shots to the Devils’ three, including Miller, who threw his body down in front of Pavel Zacha’s shot from right in front with just two seconds left on the clock.
The other was how only two players, Montour and Miller, played over 20 minutes. Krueger saw what was working and just rolled four lines. Of the forwards, Eakin had the most ice-time at 17:15, while Staal had the least at 10:36. That kind of even ice-time almost never happens.
Linus Ullmark had a few key saves of his own along the way. He came all to way across the crease to rob Janne Kuokkanen on a one-timer. This was only the third time all season Ullmark didn’t give up three goals in a start.
Dylan Cozens played his first game since Jan. 31, where he contracted COVID-19. Cozens was a factor right away; playing fast, winning battles and, again, making the smart play to keep things going. On his first shift, he made a great backhand pass to Hall forcing Blackwood into maybe his best save of the game.
This was Hall’s first time back in New Jersey since being traded to the Arizona Coyotes on Dec. 16, 2019, and he, by far, had his best game with the Sabres. He was all over the ice and was dangerous throughout.
Buffalo suffered a significant injury as McCabe had his right leg buckle under him as he tried to hit brand new Devils captain Nico Hischier. McCabe couldn’t put any weight on that leg as he was helped to the room by Kyle Okposo and Eakin.
McCabe had been playing his best hockey as a professional all season long with Rasmus Ristolainen.
“I’ll be honest with you, I’m very concerned,” Krueger said of his defenseman following the win. “We don’t have a final diagnosis yet, but it ripped my heart out to see what Jake has gone through coming off of the COVID battle, and now in question for the future. There’s a big, big ache in my heart right now, which the win certainly can’t neutralize.”
The Sabres didn’t get out of last place in the East because the New York Rangers won in Washington over the Capitals, 4-1. New York has a points percentage of .469, while the Sabres are at .429. The loss put the Devils points percentage at .583.
Buffalo will practice in New Jersey on Sunday and play the Devils again on Tuesday. In-between, though, the Sabres head to Long Island on Monday to play the Islanders. New Jersey plays in Washington on Sunday.