The Buffalo Sabres (11-26-4) look to avenge an overtime loss from earlier in the season when they host the New Jersey Devils (17-17-8). The Devils won 1-0 in OT on a Steve Bernier goal that deflated an otherwise solid Jhonas Enroth start. Now the Sabres hope to return the favor. If they can, it will be the first time the Sabres have won five straight games at home since February 2012. That will be easier said than done against an opponent that still sits in the the thick of the playoff race.
As usual, the Devils are one of the stingiest teams in the league. They are currently tied with the Anaheim Ducks for the 10th most goals against. This doesn’t bode well for the worst offense in the league, especially based on their previous meeting, but the Devils aren’t much better themselves on offense. Perhaps a recent infusion of youth will jolt the Sabres and shake a few goals loose for a team that’s playing better hockey despite its punchless offense. Against an inconsistent Devils squad, that could be enough.
The Sabres recalled D Brayden McNabb and F Johan Larsson on Jan. 1st and both figure to play tonight in place of injured starters which include Henrik Tallinder, Alexander Sulzer, Cody McCormick, Drew Stafford, and Ville Leino. Cody Hodgson was placed on IR to make room for the moves. While neither McNabb nor Larsson are known for their scoring prowess, both have played well and brought energy to the squad in their limited time in Buffalo. Perhaps that’s all the Sabres are waiting for. It’s no secret that coach Ted Nolan wants the team to simplify its attack and get more pucks to the net. Perhaps the energy of youth will provide a spark. If not these two, then perhaps a new face.
Zenon Konopka will play his first game as a Sabre since being claimed off waivers from the Minnesota Wild. Konopka brings the best faceoff percentage in the league and another tough veteran body in the lineup. He will likely play on the fourth line with John Scott and Matt Ellis, which would normally minimize expectations for his performance. Knowing Ted Nolan though, this line should get plenty of chances to make its mark on what will be a tight, defensive affair.
Ryan Miller will get the start once more as he continues to make his case for the #1 job between the pipes on the USA Hockey Team. For those interested in Miller’s ascent from fringe roster spot to potential starter this season, check out Scott Burnside’s fantastic piece that tracks the selection process from beginning to end. Against the 24th ranked offense in the NHL, expect the Sabres goalie to put up more dazzling numbers as GM David Poile watches and continues to evaluate.
As in any tight match, the key to this game will be the special teams. The Sabres have been abysmal on the power play and while Zenon Konopka’s wrister probably isn’t the antidote, the team could benefit from having Konopka taking draws in the opponent’s zone on a power play. He currently sports one of the best faceoff percentages in the league. The Sabres are still a shoddy possession team and though faceoffs don’t have a direct, numerical link to possession, it still can’t hurt to get this team the puck a little more often in the attacking zone. If the Sabres can score more power play goals than the Devils, they will have a great chance to steal this game.
The game will be broadcast from the First Niagara Center in Buffalo on MSG at 7PM EST.