NEWARK — Even Jack Eichel cracked a smile.
With every New Year comes a fresh start. A chance to close the book and begin again. A chance to put the past in the past –a shot at redemption.
In what can only be described as “trying times” in Buffalo, the Sabres had themselves a day in their final game of 2017, erasing two deficits while getting the benefit of a call that went to The League for review, before Rasmus Ristolainen found the back of the net 2:37 into sudden-death overtime to fashion a 4-3 come-from-behind victory over the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center in Newark.
On a day when Team USA defeated Canada in a winter wonderland at New Era Field in the IIHF World Junior Championships and hometown boy Patrick Kane’s filthy mits netted the game-winner for the Blackhawks in overtime, Ristolainen’s snipe in sudden-death was the icing on the cake for the Queen City.
And after the game, as the Sabres turn the page on 2017 and prepare for an outdoor game of their own in the 2018 Winter Classic against the New York Rangers at CitiField on New Year’s Day, there was room for satisfaction as the team, players and coaches enjoyed a collective sigh of relief, savoring the moment.
“They don’t make it easy. They make you earn everything you get so credit to us for sticking with our game plan and finding a way to win,” Eichel said with a smile. “That’s a real good hockey team over there but we had some real good chances in overtime. Reinhart, Kaner, Risto buries it, we get the win in overtime and it feels good.”
“Every time we’re in overtime, I enjoy it, you know?” Ristolainen said. “You have a chance to win the game and I got the bonus there tonight in the corner of the net. The only place I looked. Just found a little corner there.”
The New Jersey Devils struck first when Buffalo-born Miles Wood, whose father, Randy, played for the Sabres from 1991-’94, banged home the rebound on his third attempt in a scrum in front with 6:25 to play in the first period.
The Devils carried a 1-0 lead into the first intermission, but ex-Devil Jacob Josefson, who was drafted by New Jersey in the first round of the 2009 Draft, exacted some revenge on his original team when he stepped into an errant pass and went in all alone on Cory Schnieder on a breakaway, beating the goalie stick-side, 5:27 into the second period to tie it up at one.
The fortuitous bounce angered the Devils which truly dictated play in the second period as the line of Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt — who have accounted for 73 points this season — went to work.
With Zemgus Girgensons in the box for holding, Marcus Johansson’s power-play goal, a perfect one-timer off a set up from Sami Vatanen and Hischier, put the Devils back in front, 2-1.
New Jersey added to its lead 6:21 later when John Moore took a pass from Brian Gibbons at the point and fired a low shot through a screen that beat Sabres’ goalie Robin Lehner to make it a 3-1 game and seemingly send the Devils on its way.
Eichel, as he so often has done early in his young career, put Buffalo on his back.
The strider positioned himself in front of Schneider causing a screen before getting a stick on Jake McCabe’s shot from the point and deflecting it past the All-Star goalie, once again stick-side.
“They go up by two but I thought we had a good battle going,” Eichel said. “(Sam) Reinhart gutsy on the wall and (Evander) Kane getting pucks to the net. I thought we competed hard. We had lots of chances in their end. It was a really good hockey game and it was a good one to get before the end.”
Although Eichel’s goal cut the deficit to one, New Jersey still skated into the second intermission with a 3-2 lead behind a very balanced attack evidenced by its 25-14 advantage in shots.
In the third, with Buffalo pressing for the equalizer, play opened up allowing a multitude of scoring chances at both ends of the ice but neither Schneider (25 saves) or Lehner (35 saves) would yield.
But with Vatanen in the box for slashing, the Sabres got even with a power-play goal of their own.
With the face-off deep in the Devils end, Ryan O’Reilly won the draw back to Ristolainen at the point. The big Finnish defenseman walked the line before giving way to Kyle Okposo who saw an opening and sent a cross-ice pass to Eichel’s wheelhouse for the the one-timer to make it 3-3.
Eichel’s game-tying power-play goal — his first goal with the man-advantage this season — could not have come at a better time for the Sabres who have struggled all year on special teams after leading The League in power-play efficiency in 2016-17.
“Yeah, it’s nice to get it,” Eichel said of his goal with 8:56 remaining in regulation. “Our power play did a really good job there and needed to step up and get us one. Power play hasn’t been clicking all year but we stuck with it, had a lot of loose pucks and battles that we got the puck back so it’s good to score on the power play.”
The Devils, which came within a whisker of sweeping its six-game homestand for the first time in team history, nearly regained the lead when Hall appeared to deke Lehner and put New Jersey up, 4-3.
The play was sent to Toronto for review, however, and for once, the benefit of the doubt went Buffalo’s way as officials conferred and deemed Hall put himself off-sides after a crazy bounce in the neutral zone.
Still knotted up at three after three, the game went to overtime and both teams had plenty of chances to skate off victorious in sudden-death. Lehner halted Hischier, point-blank, before denying Bratt on his doorstep moments later. At the other end, Schneider, and Andy Greene with a key blocked shot, denied Evan Rodrigues and Marco Scandella before Ristolainen sealed it.
With the draw to Schneider’s right, O’Reilly, who won 12-of-19 face-offs (63%), won it back to Ristolainen who saw his chance, skated in uncontested and beat the goalie low, glove-side for his first goal of the season. It was also Ristolainen’s third-career game-winner in overtime, which has become something of a habit for the All-Star defenseman.
“I was watching that USA game live before our game, outdoors in Buffalo, the crowd,” Sabres’ coach Phil Housley said. “You want to give back.
“I’ve got to give it to our guys, they dug deep in the third period and played excellent. We found a way to get a power-play goal, finally, and got a big goal by Rasmus,” Housely said. “I’m just really proud of our guys, the way they battled. That’s a real good hockey team over there.”
The victory was just Buffalo’s 10th in 38 games this season. The Sabres improve to 10-20-8 and remain four points back of the Ottawa Senators for last place in the Atlantic Division, but you could hardly tell given the jovial attitude swirling around the locker room.
The loss snaps a five-game winning streak for New Jersey, dating back to a 5-2 win over the Dallas Stars on December 15. At 22-9-6, the Devils still maintain a one point lead over the Washington Capitals in the Metropolitan Division.
“We’re a fast team. If we manage the puck well, don’t turn over pucks at blue lines, we usually have a good night,” Devils’ Taylor Hall said. “A quick game puts other teams on their heels and we’re a tough team to beat. That’s the way we have to play every night.
“There’s so much parity in the league, every game is hard,” Hall said. “You see a team like Buffalo, we had them on the ropes there though the score didn’t really show that but they came back with a really good third period so you never know. You can play a team at the top of the standings and they could lay an egg, or you can play a team at the bottom and they give you one of the hardest games of the year. We’re not in any position to takes teams lightly.”
Buffalo will take the two points and look to carry the momentum on the road to the Winter Classic set for Monday at 1 p.m.
“It was a nice road win. They’re a good team over there and they were swarming us in periods and we were fighting it out together,” Sabres’ goalie Robin Lehner said. “Second period, they had a hell of a period and managed to score two. Going into the third, to tie it up and win it in overtime? It was a great crowd, sold-out building that was buzzing. A fun game to play.”
“We’ll take the two points,” Eichel said. “That’s all that matters.”
Written by John Christian Hageny / @JCCSPORTS
Special to HockeyClan
Main Image: Buffalo Sabres goaltender Robin Lehner (40) during the first period of the National Hockey League Game between the New Jersey Devils and the Buffalo Sabres on December 29, 2017, at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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