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Five things to watch when the New Jersey Devils take on the Buffalo Sabres:
1. Slowing Skinner
Jeff Skinner is one of the best 5v5 goal scorers in the league. That's been the case for some time. Unsurprisingly, he's taken it up another notch this season now that his primary center isn't Victor Rask or Derek Ryan. The year is half over and only John Tavares (20) has found the back of the net more than Skinner (18) at 5v5. He is an elite scorer and lives around the net, an area the Devils have struggled mightily to defend at times. If they let him hover around the paint, or are a step late getting to him when the puck is on his stick, he'll make them pay. Beyond Skinner, and an injured Jack Eichel, the Sabres really don't have many scoring threats. If they can limit the damage Skinner causes, they'll have a good chance of coming out on top.
2. Low-event hockey
Again, the Sabres don't have many scorers. That's surely a big reason why they play a slow-paced game as opposed to opening it up and trading chances. If they do that, their lack of firepower will be more evident. They want to play slow. They'll probably get their wish tonight against the Devils. While their pace nmbers on the year are pretty high, they have really slowed down without Taylor Hall and Marcus Johansson. Over the last 10 games, the Devils rank 23rd in Corsi pace and 27th in scoring chance pace at 5v5. Don't expect a ton of fireworks.
3. A winning recipe
With Hall and Johansson out, the coaching staff has been forced to shuffle the deck in hopes of finding trios that work. The Miles Wood - Travis Zajac - Blake Coleman combination certainly fits the bill.
In ~100 minutes together, they've controlled 54.6% of the shot attempts, 54.7% of the chances, and 63.5%(!) of the high-danger looks. Against a Sabres team lacking depth, they could be in line for another solid night.
4. Team discipline
Skinner aside, Jason Pominville is the only player expected to dress for the Sabres tonight who has scored more than four goals at 5v5. Creating offense at full-strength should be a big problem. That's why it's imperative the Devils stay out of the box and avoid handing the Sabres easy opportunities to create offense. I'm looking at you, Miles Wood.
5. Will Butcher's usage
Butcher is 3rd on the team in 5v5 ice – behind only Damon Severson and Sami Vatanen – over the last 10 games. He's handling the responsibility nicely as he has a positive goal differential and easily leads Devils blue liners in Corsi For%, Scoring Chance For%, and High-Danger Corsi For% during that stretch. I'm interested to see how much rope the coaching staff is willing to give him.
Here are the projected lineups.
New Jersey Devils
Jesper Bratt - Nico Hischier - Kyle Palmieri
Miles Wood - Travis Zajac - Blake Coleman
Blake Pietila - Pavel Zacha - Stefan Noesen
Brian Boyle - Brett Seney - Drew Stafford
Andy Greene - Damon Severson
Steven Santini - Sami Vatanen
Will Butcher - Ben Lovejoy
Jeff Skinner - Vladimir Sobotka - Tage Thompson
Conor Sheary - Evan Rodrigues - Jason Pominville
Remi Elie - Johan Larsson - Kyle Okposo
C.J. Smith - Casey Mittelstadt - Zemgus Girgensons
*Sam Reinhart is questionable
Lawrence Pilut - Rasmus Ristolainen
Marco Scandella - Jake McCabe
Rasmus Dahlin - Zach Bogosian
Puck drop is just after 7:00 p.m. ET and can be seen on MSG and MSG-B.
Numbers via NaturalStatTrick.com and Corsica.Hockey
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