The New Jersey Devils were faced with an all too familiar situation Thursday night. They trailed the Buffalo Sabres with 10 minutes remaining in regulation and stared down it’s first seven-game losing streak in 27 years.
The newest moment of adversity would test the character that the players and others in the organization said would lead them out of the streak.
Adam Henrique responded first with a power-play goal to bring New Jersey within one. Patrik Elias struck next, tying the game with just over a minute remaining in regulation. David Clarkson followed that up, scoring the game-winning shootout goal on Ryan Miller to help New Jersey defeat the Buffalo Sabres, 3-2, at the Prudential Center.
The loss snapped a six-game losing streak for the Devils and kept them one point ahead of the suddenly hot New York Rangers. They remain seventh in the Eastern Conference, one point behind the sixth-place Ottawa Senators.
“We needed it. A little bit of relief,” DeBoer said. “Our guys deserved two points. It’s been a while coming. It’s been a battle.”
Johan Hedberg broke his personal eight-game losing streak, stopping 23 of 25 shots during regulation and overtime. He stopped both Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville for his first shootout win of the season.
“Moose is the heart and soul of this team,” Clarkson said. “He’s a guy in my opinion that, every year, is one of the hardest working and he’s a leader in this room, whether he’s playing or not. We’ve got to turn this thing around for this team, but for him as well. He deserved it.”
Vanek and Brian Flynn scored for Buffalo, who have dropped three straight games (0-2-1). Jhonas Enroth, making his third start of the season, stopped 27 of 29 shots before leaving with an injury in the third period. Miller, appearing in his 15th straight game, allowed two goals in the shootout.
New Jersey climbed back from a 2-0 hole to tie the game in the third period.
Henrique put the Devils on the board with a power-play goal at 13:30 of the final period. Ilya Kovalchuk kept a bouncing puck in at the left point, chipping it to the side boards. Henrique took the loose puck and skated into the right circle. Mike Weber blocked his first shot, but left the puck for Henrique near the hash mark. He didn’t miss a second time, beating Enroth glove side for his seventh goal of the season.
Elias tied the game with 1:06 remaining in regulation. Hedberg just reached the Devils bench for an extra attacker when Andy Greene received a cross-ice pass from Marek Zidlicky near the bench. He tapped the puck up to Clarkson, who took two strides and crossed the Buffalo blue line. Enroth made a save on his point shot, but the rebound went off his stick and right to Elias in the right circle. The Devils left wing fired the puck into the open net for his seventh goal of the season.
“You hope, during the course of the year, you get a handful of those that go your way,” DeBoer said of the extra-man goal. “I think we were due for a bounce. That’s the bottom line. We’ve been working here for a week or two, and I think we’ve played some pretty good hockey and haven’t got it. We got one tonight.”
“We didn’t panic,” Henrique said. “We were getting chances. It’s bound to go in sooner or later. We battled back hard there, and Patty had the big one at the end.”
It almost went for nothing. Pominville had the best scoring chance of overtime, ringing a right circle shot off the post with under a minute left. During the losing streak, those shots seemed to go in each time. Tonight, the Devils received the bounce it needed.
“I knew it wasn’t in,” Hedberg said. “I saw the water mark on the post. It was right up in the curve of the crossbar, and it bounced right back to me. I needed that break.”
Clarkson scored in the second round of the shootout, faking a shot to Miller’s five hole before putting the puck to his backhand and shooting past the goalie’s blocker. Elias ended it in the third round, forcing Miller to lay out before easily sliding it into an open net.
“Unbelievable,” Elias jokingly told Inside Hockey about his shootout goal. “I went from the left side in. Good fake, early fake, and he kind of bit on it. I’m a little surprised I had that much net open there.”
New Jersey, who led the league with 12 shootout wins last season, earned its first of the season. The Devils had lost its previous three shootouts.
Buffalo struck first, with the league’s worst power play giving the Sabres a lead in the second period. Tyler Ennis emerged from a scrum in the corner and skated along the goal line. He found a wide open Vanek in the slot, and the Sabres left wing blasted a one-timer past the stick of Johan Hedberg for his 13th goal of the season.
It was the eighth straight game New Jersey allowed the first goal.
Flynn scored his first career NHL goal to push Buffalo’s lead to 2-0 early in the third period. Andrej Sekera’s shot from the right point was blocked in front, but the puck came to Flynn near the of the right circle. His shot deflected off the stick of Elias and into through the pads of Hedberg.
Down by two, New Jersey stuck found a way to stick with the plan and hold Buffalo off the board.
“When we got in the 2-0 hole, we kept our game,” DeBoer said. “We didn’t open it up and give them the third goal. We hung around and found a way to tie it up at the end.”
Enroth looked poised to blank New Jersey in his third start of the season. In the first period, the Sabres backup goalie denied Elias from the slot. Kovalchuk led the rush, carrying the puck over the blue line before finding Henrique in the left circle. Enroth stopped Henrique’s initial shot, but left a rebound in the slot. Elias looked to have an open net, but Enroth slid to his left and snatched the shot with his glove.
He shut down Henrique in the second period, kicking away his shot from the left hash mark.
Enroth also stopped Clarkson on a point-blank opportunity late in the second period. Henrique grabbed a rebound from a point shot in the left circle and sent a backhand pass to the right circle. Clarkson skated in and shot the puck, but Enroth slid over and denied him with his glove.
“We were pushing, we had chances,” Henrique said. “Guys kept pushing, kept battling. We came in after the second [period], and we knew what we needed to do.”
With half the season already over, Clarkson acknowledged the Devils need to string wins together.
“It’s nice. I don’t think it changes too much,” he said. “We had to battle back there a lot, and we’re going to have to come out next game. But it’s definitely a good feelings when you get those two points and the win.”
Tom Kostopoulous made his season and Devils debut tonight. Claimed off waivers from the Pittsburgh Penguins yesterday, the right wing played with Stephen Gionta and Ryan Carter for most of the game.
“We were just keeping it pretty simple,” he told Inside Hockey playing with Carter and Gionta in his debut. “We didn’t want to turn it over at either blue line, getting the puck deep and trying to work it down low in the other team’s end.”
Travis Zajac and Ennis threw punches after a whistle with under a minute left in overtime. They were each assessed two minute minor penalties and not allowed to participate in the shootout.
“Just a battle in front, I guess,” Zajac said of the tussle with Ennis. “He threw a punch at me, and I went back at him a little bit.”
New Jersey won it’s first shootout game of the season, breaking a tie with the Calgary Flames for last in the league in shootout wins.
Henrique has scored goals in three of four games. Two of the three have come on special teams (one shorthanded goal, one power-play goal).