Analyzing Buffalo’s 3-1 loss to New Jersey

January 31, 2018

A last-ditch comeback effort fell short as the Buffalo Sabres dropped their first game after the All-Star break 3-1 to the New Jersey Devils. The Sabres were coming off an impressive three-game sweep of Western Canada, carrying a shutout streak of close to 200 minutes, but failed to really generate many scoring chances on the night.

The first period was a snooze-fest but it did provide a bright spot for the Sabres. This was a really tightly checked twenty minutes, especially in the neutral zone, and they did a really good job keeping pace with the Devils in that regard. Both the forwards and the defense did well to close gaps, take away passing lanes and limit rush chances. The Sabres picked up two power play opportunities in the opening frame but failed to convert on either chance leaving things scoreless after one.

However, the good neutral zone play didn’t last very long. Just under six minutes into the second period, the Devils created a three-on-two chance off an excellent exit pass by Kyle Palmieri. The puck eventually finds its way to Miles Wood, who makes a nifty move around Robin Lehner to give the Devils a 1-0 lead, breaking Lehner’s shutout streak of 145 minutes, 15 seconds.

This isn’t exactly heroic defensive work by Rasmus Ristolainen as he gets burned by Woods’ speed, but give credit where it’s due as this is good transition hockey from the Devils to create the odd man rush.

The second would end similar to the first apart from the scoreline. The Sabres created some chances and sustained zone time in the offensive end but nothing that would threaten Keith Kincaid in goal.

Roughly five and a half minutes into the third period, some more impressive passing by the Devils creates their second goal of the night as Taylor Hall buries one past Lehner, doubling the Devils’ lead.

This is nice quick passing by 2017 first overall pick Nico Hischier and 2016 draft steal Jesper Bratt, but it’s absolutely horrendous defending from the Sabres against the entry.

Three Sabres are caught watching the two New Jersey forwards and the high forward is too slow to react (and probably too far away) to Taylor Hall being able to waltz right in. Ristolainen is the defenseman caught puck watching here. He’s got to let Ryan O’Reilly handle the puck carrier and Scandella the other forward. There’s really no reason for him to be so far over when there are already two Sabres skaters there and Taylor Hall, their most dangerous forward, is coming in looking for the pass. Ristolainen manages to get his stick on the puck in a desperate attempt to deny Hall the shot but this winds up working against him as the change in direction fools Lehner.

The Sabres would manage to get one back on the power play with five minutes to go in the third, as Jake McCabe’s shot finds its way through a maze of players beating Kinkaid to cut the lead to one.

This is a textbook setup. O’Reilly wins the faceoff back to McCabe who rips a good low wrist shot (something the rest of the d-men could use some work on) through tons of traffic.

The Sabres would get another power play chance in the final two minutes of the game after a McCabe hit drew the ire of Hischier but they were unable to complete the comeback, conceding an empty net goal in the process. Final score, 3-1 Devils.

This was a fairly even battle possession wise the whole night with the Sabres out-attempting the Devils 56-47 although the Devils had the edge 5-on-5 46-42. The expected goals for numbers told the story tonight, particularly at 5-on-5, where the Sabres generated an XGF of .96 to the Devils 1.89. Once again, although the Sabres generated some possession and zone time they failed to create any meaningful chances 5-on-5. They had a similar problem during the west coast trip but were bailed out by a sizzling hot power play.

The matchup chart tells a similar story as well. Unless they were up against Andy Greene, not much was being done 5-on-5, although the O’Reilly line did well overall.

Other Notes:

The resurgence of Sam Reinhart continues. His possession numbers are back where they should be but even more so, he just looks like a completely different player. He’s got an extra gear to his speed (he has definitely looked faster of late) and the awareness at both ends of the ice has gotten significantly better. This is very encouraging to see and while it may make contract negotiations a little difficult this offseason, having Reinhart play up to or close to second overall pick level would be a major boost for the organization.

I keep going back and forth on Ristolainen’s future with the Sabres. It’s strange that in the previous two seasons he was getting major praise from the eye test crowd but hardly any from those deep into analytics (perhaps too deep). This year he’s been a little rough on the eyes but as a whole the possession numbers are up. Last year Ristolainen finished with a Corsi For % of 43.8 at 5-on-5, which is to put it bluntly, terrible. This year he’s coming in at 46.3%, not great but trending in the right direction. Those numbers, relative to his teammates (Corsi Rel) are also up and his expected goals for numbers are up as well. This bump can be partially explained by a more balanced zone deployment this year as opposed to the defensive heavy one last year, but the sudden bump in both numbers is interesting to keep track of while the fan base has dialed expectations back on his ceiling.

Another game, another ice-cold performance from Evander Kane. It’s hard to gauge how much this recent cold streak (one goal in his last fifteen games) will affect his trade value but for Jason Botterill, who not long ago reportedly raised the ask on Kane, you have to wonder how much longer they can wait on a potential deal, especially with the surprisingly high number of quality wingers available this year.

Michael Ghofrani
About Michael Ghofrani

Michael Ghofrani has been working on finding hockey statistics that can break down and explain certain game events. He's also a Sabres follower from Toronto doing his best to fend off Leafs Nation.

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