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Sabres storm back to extend Penguins’ early season misery

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PITTSBURGH — These aren’t the Buffalo Sabres you have come to know over the past seven years.

These also are not the Pittsburgh Penguins you have come to know, either.

The two teams continued on their early season paths — which are going in completely opposite directions — on Monday night as the Sabres stormed back and erased a three-goal second period deficit to pick up a 5-4 overtime win on a Jack Eichel goal, leaving the Penguins stunned and still searching for answers.

For the Sabres, it continues what has been the team’s best start in close to a decade, extending their current winning streak to six games and giving them a 10-2-2 record in their past 14 games. Everything is clicking for them right now, from new acquisitions like Jeff Skinner stepping in and making a massive impact on the top line, to new starting goalie Carter Hutton giving the team capable goaltending every night.

[Related: The Sabres are good]

Hutton did not have a spectacular game on Monday overall, but he still made some huge saves early in the game to keep his team in it. He also played a huge factor on the penalty kill to help kill off a two-man advantage in the second period when the team was already trailing by three goals.

Once they killed off that penalty, Zach Bogosian scored to cut the deficit in half.

From that point on the Sabres completely took over the game and absolutely manhandled the Penguins in their own zone for the final 25 minutes.

“I think obviously there is that desperation in our game there in the third,” said Eichel. “We’ve been in that spot before. We’ve been a resilient bunch. There is that belief in the room every time we go out there we can make a push and find a way to get a point or two. We definitely want to work on our starts, but it’s great to see the way the team sticks together. It’s a credit to all the guys in the room to stick with it even when things don’t go our way.”

“There is a bit of confidence now because we’ve done it a few times,” Eichel continued. “I think it’s a trust and a belief in each other that the next guy is going to get the job done and set you up for your next shift. We’re a pretty tight bunch for how many new guys have come into this team and we’re doing it for each other. Everyone goes out there and doesn’t want to let the guy next to you down.”

While things are going wonderfully for the Sabres right now things for the Penguins are … well …  bad.

How bad? Look at it this way: They are left trying to find silver linings after their past two games. Those games — a 6-4 loss in Ottawa where they mounted a late — and ultimately futile — third period rally, and an overtime loss to Buffalo on home ice in which they had a 4-1 lead (while getting a 29-second two-man advantage) with 15 minutes to play in the second period.

For a team that was winning Stanley Cups just a couple of years ago and entered the season with a roster it thought was capable of winning another one, that is an astonishing and sudden slide.

Coach Mike Sullivan is trying to remain positive.

“On a couple of the goals they score, we make a couple of mistakes and they end up in the back of our net,” said Sullivan.  “Just seems like the way it is going right now. There was a lot to like about our game and our effort. We certainly have to clean up some areas defensively but there was certainly a lot to like in this game as well.

There definitely was a lot to like about the first 25 minutes, especially when it came to the team finding some even-strength scoring from players they need to get it from.

Derick Brassard, who has battled injuries and inconsistent play since arriving before last season’s trade deadline, opened the scoring with a much-needed goal, while recent acquisition Tanner Pearson scored a goal and recorded an assist. Those two points exceeded his total for the season between the Kings and Penguins entering the game.

From there, everything went south.

Defensive breakdowns, an inability to smoothly and efficiently exit the zone, no sustained offensive zone pressure, and more sub-par goaltending (this time from Casey DeSmith) turned what looked to be a much-needed win into yet another loss.

That is now nine losses in their past 10 games as the Penguins are tied with the New Jersey Devils for the lowest point total in the Eastern Conference.

Sullivan was asked if it is too early for things to be getting “desperate.”

[Related: NHL’s most impactful offseason additions]

“I don’t think it’s ever too early,”said Sullivan. “Every game is important, every point is important, and we’re scratching and clawing through it anyway we can. We are well aware of the position we are in. None of us are happy about it. We have a proud group. I do think we are getting better in a lot of areas. We’re not getting the results. We very well could have in a number of games, tonight being one of them. We have to clean up some areas I know we are capable of being better, we have to make sure we do not get down ourselves, and we keep the right attitude and the right energy around the rink so we can pull together.”

How they are able to start getting the results and how they can pull it together still seems like a mystery, but they better start figuring it out.

Captain Sidney Crosby is getting closer to a return, but there is only so much he can do. He also does not fix the issues on the blue line, in the goal crease, or in the bottom-six (though his return does push Brassard back down to the third-line role he was acquired to play in).

With Monday’s loss they now find themselves five points behind the Washington Capitals for the third playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division and seven points behind the second wild card team in the Eastern Conference. That is not an insignificant gap, even if it is still November. No team five or more points out of a playoff spot in 2017-18 on Nov. 20 (which is where the Penguins will sit on Tuesday) managed to make the playoffs.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Hughes has potential to take Devils to next level

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

Given all the changes in New Jersey this offseason, there’s no shortage of x-factors heading into the 2019-20 campaign.

One could argue, for instance, that P.K. Subban‘s arrival on the blue line is the biggest change of the offseason. I would disagree and a team that gave up as many goals as the Devils did could use a boost on the backend to take the pressure off their goaltending situation, which is suspect at best heading into the season.

But, in this scribe’s opinion, it’s the arrival of Jack Hughes who has the potential to make the biggest difference.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | Under Pressure]

The Devils need offense, plain and simple. Getting by on a leading point-producer who had just 50 points isn’t going to cut it in the NHL these days.

And while a healthy Taylor Hall will make a big difference as well, we know how big the gap can be between himself and the rest of the scoring on the team (see: 2017-18 season.)

With the potential for a breakout season for Nico Hischier — and one not limited by injuries — the addition of P.K. Subban to the power play and Nikita Gusev and Hughes to the forward contingent, the Devils should be miles ahead of their 25th-ranking in goals-for from last season.

And the expectation is Hughes will play a big role in that. He could start the season as the team’s second-line center and depending on usage, could easily hit the 20-goal mark, if not more.

“Jack’s play will determine to us what he can handle and how much,” coach John Hynes told NHL.com. “We’re not going to put pressure on him and we’re not going to put limits on him right away. We continue to put young players in situations they can handle while also challenging them in the right ways where they can have success but also see how they respond outside their comfort zone.”

Hughes does everything so well. His vision, speed and knack for scoring are all welcome additions to the Devils who sorely need more in each of those areas.

The key will be to find him the right linemates in training camp and let some chemistry develop. If it does, an 80-point season may take shape providing he’s healthy.

And, perhaps, a Calder Trophy for his efforts.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Hischier set to face pressures of contract year

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

The guys at the Spitting Chiclets podcast did an excellent interview last week with Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche.

Why are we talking about MacKinnon on Devils Day at PHT? Just keep reading.

MacKinnon spoke about his sophomore season being a tough one with just 14 goals after winning the Calder Trophy a year before.

It took him two more seasons before he’d flip a switch in his head, one that would take him from a mid-50-point guy to the near-100-point player he’s been for the past two seasons.

MacKinnon said he was starting to feel like he was a bust after being taken first overall in the 2013 NHL Draft.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | X-factor]

Now, I’m not saying that Hischier feels the same way. Both are different players. But both are first-overall picks with a tremendous amount of expectations levied upon them, ones that will last throughout their respective careers.

So if MacKinnon was battling mental demons, one could come to the conclusion that Hischier may do so at some point as well.

Hischier dealt with injury in his second year, much like MacKinnon, and was limited to 17 goals and 47 points — down from the 20 goals and 52 points in his rookie season. That said, his points per game rose in his second campaign even if the overall number didn’t.

And none of this is to say that Hischier has been a bust at all. He’s far from that and an excellent two-way center who, now given some tools around him, a great candidate to have a breakout season.

But the pressure is, nevertheless, going to be there for the Swiss kid. There’s a lot of money waiting on the table for him next offseason when his entry-level deal comes to a close.

Hischier remains a massive piece for the Devils moving forward.

The team now has him and Jack Hughes as their 1-2 punch down the spine of the team, a better defense with the addition of P.K. Subban and a greater supporting cast with Nikita Gusev and Wayne Simmonds.

And while the point totals may not jump off the page, the fact is the Devils outscore opponents and create more high-danger scoring chances when Hischier is on the ice.

Hischier is far from being labeled a bust, much like MacKinnon was.

The pressure is on, however, as he enters a season where a big impact could lead to a bigger contract next summer.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Will Taylor Hall re-sign long-term?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

Let’s ponder three questions for the 2019-20 Devils:

1. Has all the offseason work enticed Taylor Hall to re-sign?

In early June, a report from The Fourth Period’s David Pagnotta suggested that Hall had no interest in re-signing with the club.

Fast forward a month, and the team that managed just 74 points in a dismal regular season now had Jack Hughes, the top prospect in the 2019 NHL Draft, P.K. Subban, one of the league’s best defensemen, and were about to embark on adding Wayne Simmonds and Nikita Gusev before August hit.

Ray Shero needed to do something to convince Hall that the Devils were heading in the right direction and perhaps it has worked, although there is still no long-term extension in place for the former Hart Trophy winner.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

Hall’s agent, for what it’s worth, says there’s no rush. As does Shero.

And while that may be true, these sort of things only become distractions as the regular season hits in 2019-20. The Devils would certainly need to know by the trade deadline so they could avoid a John Tavares incident.

Two first-overall picks in the past three seasons and a genuine attempt to make the team better has to sit well in Hall’s camp. But there’s always going to be that allure of having the world at his feet with truckloads of money and the ability to chose his destination next summer.

2. What role will Mackenzie Blackwood take on this season? 

Cory Schneider went more than a calendar year without a win and he was horrific to start the season, posting a 0-7-2 record before finally getting that elusive ‘W’ in the middle of February.

From there, he went 6-6-2 with a .927 save percentage down the stretch as he finally looked like the goalie sans the hip issue that had plagued him (and was surgically repaired in May 2018.)

Schneider’s injuries and Keith Kinkaid not being very good allowed the Devils a chance to see what Blackwood could do. And 22-year-old didn’t disappoint, even with the mess in front of him.

In 21 starts he went 10-10-0 with a .918 save percentage and two shutouts.

While Schneider appeared to begin his bounceback from surgery in the last half of the season, Blackwood should see increased time (even if the former is making $6 million a season.) Blackwood appears to be the future in New Jersey and the Devils shouldn’t be married to Schneider being their de facto No. 1.

3. What, if anything, will Shero do the rest of his cap space? 

There’s roughly $8 million still sitting in his kitty, although the team still needs to sign restricted free agent Pavel Zacha.

Evolving Wild’s model has Zacha coming in around the $2 million mark in terms of annual average value, which gives the Devils $6 million-ish to work with they want to strengthen the team further.

Of course, the unrestricted free agent pool has shrunk over the summer, but you wonder if a guy such as Patrick Maroon might make for a good addition in terms of grit and experience.

What about a Ben Hutton on defense to make another improvement on the blue line?

There still may be some bargains out there and the Devils appear to have assembled a team worthy of playoff talk.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

It’s New Jersey Devils Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

2018-19
31-41-10, 74 pts. (8th in the Metropolitan Division, 15th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN
Jack Hughes
P.K. Subban
Wayne Simmonds
Nikita Gusev
Connor Carrick
John Hayden

OUT
Kurtis Gabriel
Brian Boyle
Keith Kinkaid
Ben Lovejoy
Kenny Agostino
Stefan Noesen
Drew Stafford
Eric Gryba
Eddie Lack

RE-SIGNED
Will Butcher
Mirco Mueller

2018-19 season review

Season grade: F
Offseason grade: A+

Yes, it appears it can all change that quickly for some teams.

Much like the Florida Panthers, who I wrote about last week, the New Jersey Devils can rest easy knowing that last season is going to feel like a distant memory after the summer Ray Shero and Co. put together.

The Devils were very bad last season, so bad that, for the second time in the past three seasons, they were rewarded (thanks to a bit of luck) with the first-overall pick back in June.

[MORE: X-factor | Under Pressure | Three questions]

They came into the draft lottery with the third-best odds but moved up to spots for the honor of selecting Jack Hughes.

They then shook up the hockey world, dropping a massive trade bomb on the second day of the draft as they acquired P.K. Subban to fortify their blue line.

Getting Hughes and Subban in the same weekend helped take the sting off a poor season where they couldn’t score much and couldn’t stop the puck a whole lot at the other end of the ice.

Just two players cracked the 20-goal plateau, only one player hit 50 points and their goaltending was abysmal. It didn’t help that Taylor Hall was limited to just 33 games because of injury and then there were the rumors of his long-term future not being in Newark.

Some of those questions still remain, especially between the pipes, but there’s a reason for optimism after such a big summer.

Aside from Hughes and Subban, the Devils also added some grit in Wayne Simmonds. It’s a one-year ‘prove it’ sort of deal that will keep Simmonds hungry as he goes searching for a longer-term deal next offseason.

And they added a player some consider the best who wasn’t playing in the NHL in Nikita Gusev, a former Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick who was then signed by the Golden Knights last year and then traded to New Jersey in July.

A lot of good has happened since the Devils played their final regular-season game of 2018-19. They’ve had to keep up in an arms race across the Hudson River as the New York Rangers took Kaapo Kakko right after New Jersey took Hughes and added Artemi Panarin in free agency and signed Jacob Trouba to a long-term deal.

Either way, gone should be the days where the Devils aren’t considered a perennial playoff contender.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck