NEWARK, N.J. – This one gets filed in the folder marked “No Win Is Boring.”
Still, you have to grit your teeth when saying that about the Buffalo Sabres’ 3-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday night in a half-empty Prudential Center.
Through 33 minutes, the game was scoreless and the shots on goal were 8-8. Play was almost entirely in the neutral zone. Scoring chances could be counted on one hand. Pity the 10,000 or so fans who bothered to show up.
“Really it was just a boring road game,” was the frank analysis of Sabres goaltender Chad Johnson. “Both sides. We didn’t have a lot. they didn’t have a lot. It was just a typical New Jersey Devils hockey game and we just stuck with our game, stayed pretty tight. It was boring. That was a bad game. You have to just get through it.”
“I just wondered if we were going to get to 15 shots in the game,” said Sabres coach Dan Bylsma. “We wanted to come out and get 15 in the first period.”
You’re just not ever doing that against the Devils. The names change on the ice, behind the bench and in the executive suite. But the soul-killing style of hockey never does.
The most dreadful entertainment value of the season in First Niagara Center was by far the 2-0 New Jersey win on Dec. 15. This game wasn’t much different.
The final shots on goal were just 19-18 for the Devils. That made it the first Sabres game where neither team hit 20 since a 2002 win in Anaheim where Buffalo had an 18-17 edge.
At even strength, the teams combined for just 24 shots (13 by the Devils).
“I feel like I’ve played a game like that in this building before,” joked Bylsma, referring to his time with Pittsburgh. “But I thought we played a patient game, a good honest game.”
He’s got a point there. The Sabres made just enough plays to get the win and improve to 34-35-11 for 79 points. They’ve won three straight for the first time since November and are 7-2-2 in their last 11.
Their goals were nice ones too. Ryan O’Reilly scored on a power play late in the second period after a terrific four-way passing play, Johan Larsson tallied 12 seconds into the third period and Jack Eichel hit the empty net with 47.4 seconds left by outmuscling the Devils in their zone and toppling them like bowling pins to power the puck into the empty cage.
“It’s a little boring but you have to create your opportunities,” said O’Reilly, whose blasted his 21st goal of the season just over the shoulder of Devils goalie Cory Schneider with 5:48 left in the second. “It’s a tough game to get going. We stuck with it, capitalized on the power play and started rolling from there.”
O’Reilly won the faceoff but the goal was made by the quick passing of Cal O’Reilly, Rasmus Ristolainen and Eichel.
“Look how quick they moved the puck,” Ryan O’Reilly said. “They gave me so much time with it. I could dust it off and take my time. It’s nice when guys move it that well and set me up like that.”
Larsson got his 10th of the season by capitalizing on a misplay by Devils defenseman John Moore in the zone and beating Schneider with a quick snap shot.
“I saw he passed it and fumbled a little bit,” Larsson said of Moore. “It was fresh ice and you knew you could get away a little bit.”
The Sabres had a 2-0 lead and were comfortable but things got tight on Jacob Josefson’s power-play goal with 5:29 left. Buffalo had to kill another penalty as Larsson went for tripping at 16:16 but emerged unscathed.
“It just shows how much we’ve grown throughout this year,” Johnson said. “You get rid of October with that learning curve as a new group with a new coach, new players and we’ve shown we can be a good team. We’ve grown throughout the season. You can see that with third periods. We gain more and more experience with situation like this.”
The coup de grace came from Eichel, who accelerated for a loose puck with Schneider on the bench, got it away from Mike Sislo and left red jerseys littered on the ice in his wake as he pushed it home for his 24th goal of the season.
“That was awesome. Right when you see it’s a footrace, the whole bench is excited,” O’Reilly said. “He’s going to get it or be very close to getting it. You’re lucky he puts it in. You see all the bodies on the ground. It was pretty funny to see.”
At least it provided a highlight-reel moment at the end of a game that had virtually none.