Newark, NJ — Head coach Lindy Ruff has made it a point this season to try and keep combinations together to build chemistry. It’s a different mindset for Ruff who often put his lines in a blender last season despite the overwhelming amount of success. With a shuffle in the bottom six forward group, the New Jersey Devils defeated the Buffalo Sabres 5-4 on Erik Haula’s big night.
Devils Quick Wrap
A quick exchange of goals by J.J. Peterka and Alexander Holtz saw the game tied halfway through the opening frame on Friday night. Tage Thompson later broke the tie, stickhandling his way through the Devils defense and around Vitek Vanecek to give the Sabres a 2-1 lead. Jesper Bratt, however, tied things again a two apiece during 4-on-4 play. Erik Haula and Rasmus Dahlin traded goals in the second period to send the game to the final frame tied at three. Jack Hughes gave New Jersey their lead back in the third period on a shot from the blueline. Dylan Cozens later tied it, but it didn’t last long after Haula scored his second goal of the game to secure the Devils victory. Vanecek made 23 saves on 27 shots. Eric Comrie made 16 saves on 18 shots before he left the game due to injury. Ukka Pekka-Luokkonen stopped 18 pucks on 21 shot in relief.
Devils Respond Quick
Despite coming out of the first period having given up two goals, it was actually a better start to the game for New Jersey as opposed to Wednesday. Rookie defenseman Luke Hughes stumbled over his own feet attempting to get in position on the backcheck. With the puck on Peterka’s stick, the 21-year-old Sabres forward was able to find his way into a high-danger scoring position and beat Vanecek to give the Sabres a 1-0 lead.
That didn’t cause the Devils to play on their heels, however. And, in even better news, Hughes responded well. Just over a minute later, the rookie defenseman fired a puck at Comrie from the left circle and Alexander Holtz was on the doorstep to clean up the rebound.
Alexander Holtz, ladies and gentlemen! pic.twitter.com/1q5kNPwzwj
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) October 27, 2023
Later, Connor Clifton blindsided the Devils captain with a big hit and as a result, was ejected from the game receiving a match penalty. Ondrej Palat’s wires crossed coming to the defense of Hischier who went to the locker room following the collision. The veteran forward received a two-minute instigator and five five-minute major penalties. Jesper Bratt, however, quickly got his vengeance, tying the game just seconds into four-on-four play after the penalties were sorted.
The score didn’t indicate how well the Devils played in the opening frame. They dominated the chance differential 12-8 (a 60 CF%), however, a few hiccups ended the first period tied at two. Clean those up and that’s the first period the Devils want to keep playing.
Devils fans have been waiting for this one all season.
New Jersey has struggled to get clutch saves this year. Against Washington, Ruff pinned the loss on the teams’ defense while defending his goaltending. He was right. However, every once in a while you need a big save or two to bail out your team.
That’s exactly what the Devils got on Friday night.
THE VITEK! pic.twitter.com/NtnIk865y8
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) October 28, 2023
We knew this might happen with Luke. A handful of rookie mistakes led to turnovers in the Sabres end and as a result, scoring chances for Buffalo were made. Luckily for the 20-year-old defenseman, Vanecek was up for the challenge to bail him out. A pair of breakaway opportunities for Alex Tuch and Zemgus Girgensons were turned aside by the Devils’ goaltender to keep things tied at two in the second period.
Tuch may be seeing Vanecek in his nightmares tonight. The Sabres forward had a handful of more opportunities to score later in the period. However, Vanecek denied Tuch the opportunity to score, including a wrap-around chance in which the Devils goaltender made a split stop.
Between Vanecek and Schmid, New Jersey hasn’t received the big saves so far this season. They finally got some on Friday thanks to Vanecek.
“The saves (Vanecek) made in the second period, some of the odd number rushes in a key time of the game for us, those were big mistakes as a club (and he bailed us out),” Ruff explained.
Haula’s Big Night
Friday night was quite the game for Haula. The 32-year-old forward came in clutch twice, giving the Devils a lead twice in the same game.
Haula skated in a new role on Friday playing left-wing as opposed to center. Skating alongside Dawson Mercer and Curtis Lazar, the new trio defended well, although were on the negative side of a 6-7 chance differential.
However, Hischier’s injury left New Jersey shorthanded. As a result, Haula skated in a number of different scenarios. His first goal came on the penalty kill in which he created the chance all on his own. The Finnish forward forced a turnover at the Devils’ blue line and sprung himself for a breakaway shorthanded and beak Pekka-Lukkonen on the backhand. He later redirected a point shot by Kevin Bahl, the eventual game-winning goal.
Individually, Haula was one of New Jersey’s best forwards all night accruing a 65 CF%. He even won 10/13 faceoffs.
It’s too bad his stick broke on a shot with the net empty that surely would have been a hat-trick.
“It’s a little sad,” Haula chuckled. “I don’t have a hat trick. I don’t know if I’ll get another opportunity for one.”
Ruff continued: “I don’t think (Haula, who was a little banged up) was up to speed in the previous couple of games. I think tonight we saw more of what we need out of him.”
- Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt extended their point streaks to seven and six games respectively.
- Luke Hughes registered his first multi-point game of the season with a pair of assists.
- Jack had a strong night in the faceoff dot winning 10/16 draws.