Change the players, change the coach. Now even change the general manager. But no matter who you have working for the New Jersey Devils, watching their games is sure to create a snooze.
Uneasy is the opponent who falls under the Devils’ spell. Sympathy to the fans subjected to looking for a shred of entertainment value.
The Buffalo Sabres and the patrons of First Niagara Center fell victim Tuesday night, as New Jersey clamped down on any excitement and gladly left town with a 2-0 victory.
It was one of those classic Devils’ games. Create interference in the neutral zone, plenty more in the defensive end, wait for you to make a mistake and hope to capitalize. Forget about any sort of attack.
“Whenever we get a little speed, get a little break, they get over top of us right away,” said Sabres winger Sam Reinhart. “You have to praise them. You have to work around them as much as possible by keeping things simple, put it behind them and get in on the forecheck. They play their system and they stick to it very well.”
Through 36 minutes of play, the teams had combined for just 21 shots on goal. In fact, there was a stretch of 9 minutes, 15 seconds of the second period without a single one for either side. It was 16 minutes into the second period and the shots in the middle stanza were 3-3.
To call it boring would be an insult to boredom.
When West Seneca native Lee Stempniak potted a rebound at 17:27 of the second period, the Sabres were in trouble. When Jiri Tlusty whirled a shot past Linus Ullmark at 4:12 of the third after a Zach Bogosian turnover, the Sabres were toast.
The Sabres had just 13 shots through 40 minutes before outshooting New Jersey, 12-4, in the third. The Devils were simply content to get the puck out of their zone. If it created an icing call, so be it.
“They ‘punted’ a lot of pucks,” said Sabres coach Dan Bylsma. “They just got it out into the neutral zone often in that third period. We kept coming back at them, kept getting to the offensive zone. They had the house pretty well protected.”
The days of coaches Jacques Lemaire, Pat Burns or Larry Robinson and GM Lou Lamoriello are over for New Jersey, a franchise that has won three Stanley Cups and has been to the Cup final as recently as 2012. But under new GM Ray Shero and first-year coach John Hynes, locking games down remain a Devils specialty.
Buffalo captain Brian Gionta, an alumnus of the Devils’ 2003 Cup champions, called that a “misconception.” But you sure could have fooled the poor folks who made the trek downtown Tuesday.
“They play on top of you, they play hard. They’re a quick team,” Gionta insisted. “They force you to make mistakes and we fed right into their game plan. We didn’t do enough supporting each other with little chips behind their ‘D’ and kind of slowing their speed.”
Indeed, the Devils are content to play it safe until you make a mistake. You don’t get the puck where it’s supposed to be or out of your zone and it can quickly end up in your net.
“That’s exactly what it is,” Gionta said. “They’re waiting for those turnovers. Waiting to transition on stuff like that. They’re feeding on turnovers in our zone.”
New Jersey also conspired to blank the Sabres’ power play on three chances, with the first two registering no shots on goal. After getting to second in the NHL in conversions, Buffalo has gone 0 for 6 the last two games.
“It seems like it goes kind of game to game,” Reinhart said. “It’s a lot of success or we don’t have success. We have to look at the things we’re doing well and build off those.”
It was an opportunity lost for the Sabres. With a regulation win, Buffalo had a chance to pull within three points of the Devils and within four points of an Eastern Conference playoff spot. Now, the Sabres are seven back.
“It’s a tough loss, a team you’re chasing in the standings and you can make up some good ground,” Gionta said. “You have to give them credit but at the same time we just didn’t have enough. We were off on our passes, off on our execution. A couple missed assignments led to goals. It’s disappointing.”