NEWARK, N.J. - Turnovers in the defensive zone, mostly at the blue line, had plagued New Jersey through the early part of the season. The Devils have greatly improved in that facet of late, which is correlated to the team's recent run of success.
But those turnovers creeped back into their game Tuesday night and it cost them in a 5-3 loss to the Buffalo Sabres at Prudential Center.
"The puck was on our stick almost on every goal (against)," Devils head coach Lindy Ruff said. "We paid dearly for some of the mistakes we made."
It started on the opening shift when Yegor Sharangovich lost the puck to Buffalo's Tage Thompson for a shot from the side of the net. That play set the precedent as the Devils would surrender three goals directly because of turnovers.
Andreas Johnsson's pass was in the feet of Zajac and stolen by Buffalo. Rasmus Asplund finished off the counter try for the goal. Blueliner P.K. Subban was guilty late in the first period trying to force a puck through the neutral zone that was picked off and led to a defensive zone face-off, and a goal against for Montour.
"If you look at our puck management tonight, and look at almost every goal (for Buffalo) the puck was on the hands of our stick and we turned pucks over," Ruff said. "Again, it came down to, for me, small plays. We put the puck in the middle of the ice, got scored against. We'd go long stretches playing pretty well and then turn the puck over."
The Devils had built a 3-2 lead, but another turnover proved costly. Defenseman Ty Smith tried to force a puck through two Sabres near his own blue line. The puck didn't get through and seconds later Rasmus Dahlin tied that game at 3-3 in the second period.
It was a play that Ruff referred to as "a teachable moment."
"Ty didn't see anybody on the left-wing wall so he decided to try a play up the middle," Ruff said. "That's a play that you have to live to fight again. That may be a high flip to space, that may be a play off the glass and get it into the neutral zone and let our forwards regroup."
Casey Mittelstadt scored the game-winner at 10:20 of the third period with a power-play goal.
Here are some other observations from the game…
* The biggest storyline entering Tuesday's game was the NHL debut of rookie Tyce Thompson. And the 21-year-old didn't disappoint.
It took Thompson all of two shifts to make an impact in the League. He collected a chipped puck in the offensive zone along the wall and carried toward the corner. With no lane to reach the goal and staring at a bad angle, Thompson made a simple, yet intelligent play to shoot the puck low and far side for an apparent rebound. The shot/pass worked perfectly as the puck bounced right onto the stick of pinching defenseman Damon Severson, who buried the shot.
"It was definitely special," Thompson said. "It was crazy with the emotions, excitement, nerves. I thought the guys in the room did a good job of keeping me calm, just enjoying the moment and having fun out there."
Another play that caught my eye came in the second period when Thompson collected the puck with speed entering the offensive zone. The Sabres' defenders backed off and gave him space. Thompson cut to the high circles and ripped a hard shot on net that nearly scored. On the play you saw all the potential: the speed, the hands, the shot.
"I liked his energy, I liked the way he skated," Ruff said. "He put the puck on net and got a great bounce for his first NHL point. For me it was a good game for your first NHL game."
Interestingly, Thompson didn't share his coach's assessment of his first game. Following the game he replied "no, not at all" when asked if he was satisfied with himself.
"I thought I was OK," he continued. "I had some moments that were good, and other moments that I definitely thought I could have been better at."
It's a pretty tough assessment, but you have to love the fact that he didn't cut himself any slack. Thompson has high expectations for himself, and you know he will work his tail off to achieve them.
* Speaking of Severson's goal, it came from a great read by the Devils defenseman. A three New Jersey forwards were in a puck battle along the far wall. As Mikhail Maltsev chipped the puck ahead, Severson saw an open lane in front of him to the net. The veteran blueliner burst up ice and drove to the net. He put himself in a perfect position to score on the rebound. And after his last game, it was good to see him get rewarded.
* New Jersey scored a beautiful goal halfway through the second period. A lot of credit is deserved all around, but I really loved the play(s) by forward Jesper Bratt.
The entire scoring sequence starts with Bratt stealing a puck in the defensive zone on an attempted keep by Buffalo. Miles Wood read the turnover and immediately started speeding up ice where he received a pass from Bratt. Wood carried into the zone and pulled up at the circles, going cross-ice to Bratt. The 22-year-old threw a pass to birthday boy Pavel Zacha, who was all alone at the side of the net. Zacha's initial shot was stopped on a split toe save by goalie Linus Ullmark. Zacha followed up on his own rebound, lifting it into the net as he fell backward to the ice.
The helper was Bratt's second point of the game, giving him 11 points (4G-7A) in his past 12 games. He also collected a power-play goal in the contest.
* On that note, the Devils power play finally broke through with a goal with .6 seconds remaining in the first period to snap a 0-for-16 streak. Zacha's buzzer beater shot attempt went off of Travis Zajac and then Bratt and into the net. Bratt gave new meaning to the term "crash the net," as he was positioned in the blue paint when the puck went in off of his body.
* The Devils were able to get on the power play because of a nice play by Zajac. He intercepted a Brandon Montour pass at his own blue line and quickly head-manned the puck to Maltsev for a partial breakaway. Montour, who scored a mere 28 seconds early, tripped Maltsev to lead to the man-advantage opportunity.
It was a nice play, but it's also very indicative of the Devils' future. We hear Ruff talk about "Devils Hockey" a lot. And that's a great example of a deadly counterattack with speed. It starts by forcing a turnover, countering up ice with speed and creating a rush opportunity. You'll be seeing a lot of plays like that from the Devils in the future.