The Buffalo Sabres haven’t had too many reasons to smile this season, but Tuesday night proved to be one of those rare occasions.
Goaltender Nathan Lieuwen – who almost always seems to have a smile on his face – recorded his first NHL victory, center Tyler Ennis hit the 20-goal plateau and Ville Leino scored his first goal of the season, albeit the shootout winner (and therefore a team goal) in Buffalo’s 3-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils at First Niagara Center.
Dainius Zubrus opened the scoring for the Devils and Tuomo Ruutu tied the game 6:58 into the third period on the power play. A goalless overtime sent the game to the skills challenge for the extra point.
The shootout lasted nine rounds with Ennis, Drew Stafford and Leino scoring for Buffalo. Leino put the puck five-hole on Devils netminder Cory Schneider in the top of the ninth. Then, Lieuwen shut the door, making a left pad save on Mike Sislo to earn the win.
New Jersey is now 0-11 in the shootout this year while Buffalo improves their shootout record to 7-4.
When Leino skated to center ice for his attempt, the sold-out crowd was on its feet, cheering him on.
“It was actually pretty awesome. I wanted to score for them and they gave me a little extra effort there,” Leino said. “I didn’t know if they were going to boo or cheer so I was pretty happy about that.”
Leino missed the team’s last game due to a migraine and has yet to score a goal through 53 games played this year.
“I mentioned to John Scott, ‘Watch the crowd go crazy on this one,’” Sabres coach Ted Nolan said. “So Ville jumped over and the crowd was really, really good. The fans appreciate it so it was nice to see Ville get that win for us.”
Why did he go with Leino in that situation?
“He played a real good game for us tonight and we were running out of forwards,” Nolan said with a smile. “No, he’s had a tough, tough go, but he’s a real good player and I was glad to see him get one.”
Ennis scored a pair of goals for Buffalo, his 20th and 21st of the season. He has hit a new career-high for goals. He scored 20 back in 2010-11, his first full NHL season.
The first goal came on a rush through the neutral zone with Stafford and Leino. Stafford stepped over the line and sent the puck over to Leino, who then fed it to Ennis for a shot that went top shelf over Schneider.
Ennis’ 21st tally of the season was the result of a power-play effort and a good cross-ice pass from Cody Hodgson that Ennis was able to bury into the back of the net. That play came right after Stafford made a great defensive play on the backcheck to break up a New Jersey scoring opportunity.
Ennis gave credit to his teammates for setting him up with great passes. Stafford recorded the secondary assist on both goals.
With the win, Buffalo took the season series from the Devils 2-1. Each of the three games was decided by one goal.
“You’ve got to beat the trap with speed. If you’re skating through the neutral zone slow, that’s kind of what they want and they did a great job – and they’ve done a great job with that for a long time,” Ennis said. “It was a great way to kind of beat their system and get it to a shootout and win.”
Lieuwen’s shootout was an eventful one. After Stafford scored in the top of the fourth round, Lieuwen stared down Devils forward Jaromir Jagr with the game on the line. Lieuwen came out to challenge, but Jagr was able to beat him to extend the shootout.
“Not only was it back and forth, but I had a ‘Welcome to the NHL’ moment when Jagr came down on me for that one,” Lieuwen said. “I had a chance to win the game and I think I was a little too excited about what was happening. But then we managed to get the extra point after that, so it was good.”
Nolan said before the game he wanted to see Lieuwen be more aggressive in the crease and was impressed at how he responded.
“Nathan and I had a nice conversation on the ice today and the one thing I wanted to see from him is his compete level,” Nolan said. “The goaltending coaches will show him the angles and how to cut them off and so forth but there’s nothing about having a good compete and battling for the puck. I thought he was really, really good tonight.”
Lieuwen made several saves throughout the contest to keep Buffalo in it. He made acrobatic stops on Michael Ryder on one shift late in the first period and another on Ruutu about a minute later. He also took a shot off the top of the mask with 1:02 remaining in overtime.
As the game wore on, the rookie goaltender was able to settle in.
“I got more comfortable. Took that shot to the head there. That helped, settled me down. I started to play a little bit better. It kind of just brought me back to Earth and settled the nerves,” Lieuwen said.
“I felt like I belong here. And that’s a great feeling, when you’re in the NHL and you can tell yourself that you belong here and you can play at this level and you can do really well at this level.”
As the season winds down, the Sabres now depart for a three-game road trip that takes them to St. Louis, Detroit and Philadelphia. They’ll face the Blues on Thursday at 8 p.m. EST. Buffalo has only seven games remaining on the schedule.