Devils eliminate Sabres, clinch home ice as Rangers wait for first round opponent

On an off night for the Rangers, they now know they can’t finish higher than third in the Metro Division. That was guaranteed when the Devils eliminated the Sabres by virtue of a 6-2 win on home ice before a packed crowd at The Prudential Center.

Entering tonight’s play, the Devils knew they still had a shot at first place. Even though the Hurricanes won over the Red Wings as expected, it will all come down to Thursday night.

Buoyed by a goal and assist from Miles Wood along with a pair of goals from 20-goal scorer Tomas Tatar, the Devils treated their fans to a good night. It came at the expense of the Sabres, who ran out of gas in a game that was much closer than the final score.

The Devils got the only goal of an evenly played first period. Jesper Boqvist scored his 10th on a strong shift. He put away the first goal thanks to some good work from Wood and Nathan Bastian. A Bastian corner dump in allowed Wood to fire a shot from a sharp angle that took a carom for Boqvist, whose rebound banked in off a Sabres player.

With it being the second to last game, including the final one at home before next week’s playoffs start, Lindy Ruff opted to dress 11 forwards and 7 defensemen. That allowed the newest Devil Luke Hughes to make his much anticipated NHL debut. He wore number 43.

The former 2021 Devils’ fourth pick received 11:15 in 13 shifts. That included a brief 11-second shift on the power play. An area the former Michigan star should excel at in the future. He nearly had his first NHL point on a pass that almost set up a goal. Devon Levi prevented it with a diving save.

Over a minute into the second period, Jonas Siegenthaler increased the lead to two. On a quick moving play in transition, Tatar got the puck up for Nico Hischier. He then passed it for a pinching Siegenthaler, whose slap shot beat Levi through traffic for his 4th at 1:06.

The Sabres had a goal from J.J. Peterka overturned due to a successful offsides challenge from Ruff. It was an easy decision that didn’t take long for the officials to waive off.

However, some hard work down low from Alex Tuch and Casey Mittlestadt allowed Jeff Skinner to bury his 34th at 6:55. That pulled the Sabres within a goal.

Less than three minutes later, Wood was able to put home a rebound for his 12th from Bastian and Hischier. That restored the two-goal lead.

Despite out-shooting the Devils 15-9, the Sabres couldn’t draw any closer in the period. Vitek Vanecek made 14 of 15 saves to keep the home team ahead by two.

During the third, a smart play by improving defenseman Kevin Bahl resulted in a critical fourth goal for the Devils. On a play where he looked set up in the slot, the lanky Bahl couldn’t quite tee up the puck. However, he made a good pass up for Damon Severson, who moved the puck over for Tatar. He beat Levi just inside the post for his 19th to make it 4-1 with 12:50 remaining.

Before the party could begin, the Sabres never quit. On a good forecheck from Tuch after Dougie Hamilton turned over the puck, he found Mattias Samuelsson wide open in the right circle for his second to cut it to 4-2 with still 6:45 left.

Levi would make the save of the game when he got over to rob Hischier of a sure goal. His one-timer was gloved by a quick reacting Levi, who made 24 saves on 28 shots in a losing effort. Although he wasn’t as good, making his third straight start over four days, the Mike Richter Award winner again made key stops to give his team a chance.

Following a close call where Hughes nearly broke Patrik Elias’ single season team record in scoring, Ondrej Palat took an offensive zone penalty when he took down Tage Thompson to put the Sabres on the power play. There were still over five minutes remaining.

On a play behind the net, it looked like Skinner had scored on a wrap-around. However, the replay showed that Ryan Graves dove to get his stick on the goal line to prevent the puck from going in. Had it gone in, who knows what would’ve happened. Graves has made several great defensive plays like that during the season. He’s like a second goalie.

On the second half of the power play, Don Granato lifted Levi for a six-on-four. They never got any closer. Eventually, Timo Meier and Bastian combined to move the puck ahead for a Tatar empty netter for his 20th with 2:32 left.

The only question left was would Hughes get the record. He entered tied with Elias after a three-point game. On a Vanecek clear down, a hustling Jesper Bratt raced to get the puck behind the net. He then made the unselfish play by passing for Hughes, who scored into the open net for point number 97.

That allowed the former top pick to surpass Elias, whose previous mark of 96 came during 2000-01. Hughes was congratulated by happy teammates. Chants of “MVP, MVP” rained down from the appreciative sellout crowd. Why not? He deserves to be included for the Hart Trophy. Even if Connor McDavid will win it with David Pastrnak finishing second, Hughes earned it.

With the Devils up to 110 points, they trail the Hurricanes by a point with both teams playing their final game on Thursday. The Devils will play the Capitals in DC. The Canes finish with the Panthers in Florida. The Panthers clinched a wildcard due to the Penguins somehow losing at home to the Blackhawks 5-2.

The wildcard comes down to the Islanders taking on the Canadiens at home on Wednesday night. All they need is one point to clinch. If they somehow don’t, the Pens can still get in with a win over the Blue Jackets.

All of this will help determine the first round match-ups. The Rangers know it’ll either be at Carolina or New Jersey for the first two games. They’ll wait and see who their opponent will be.

With nothing left to play for, they can rest Igor Shesterkin against the Maple Leafs on Thursday. I’d expect Jaroslav Halak to get the start. Maybe Gerard Gallant gives Adam Fox or Ryan Lindgren another night off. He can play Ben Harpur. We’ll see what he decides.

At least the playoff picture is finally clearer. Mika Zibanejad needs a goal to hit 40. Both Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko need a goal or assist for 40 points. Here’s hoping that happens.


About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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2 Responses to Devils eliminate Sabres, clinch home ice as Rangers wait for first round opponent

  1. hasan4978 says:

    Was at least gonna do a preview for last night but got busy…figured I wouldn’t bother with a recap now when I saw yours. The 11-7 was probably as much a function of Haula and McLeod being out as anything but still you’d hope they would call someone up for Thursday if need be, unless there’s still a transaction limit for the end of the season. That save on Nico was no worse than one of the three best saves of the year I’ve seen from any goalie.

    I guess I wasn’t paying AS much attention to the Hughes team record as I should have, for some reason I thought his first point last night would tie Patty, not break the record. Suppose I forgot he got the tying one on the Bratt goal in Boston.

    At least it comes down to Thursday but the Pens losing to the Blackhawks (lol) put the Panthers in, which takes off some of the urgency for their game tomorrow. If the Isles lose tonight, the Panthers are locked into the WC1 seed, playing either us or the Canes. I’d imagine they sit everyone they can if they are locked in. Even if they aren’t, it’s hard to get motivated by seeding although they should want to avoid the Bruins.

    Little surprised how blase both teams seem about winning the division, us playing Blackwood on Saturday instead of against Columbus was the height of laissez-faire, I was almost tempted to think the ticket bean counters leaned on Lindy so we’d play the Rangers and have profitable tickets lol…even with the bad second goal he allowed that game didn’t really come down to goaltending though.


    • Derek Felix says:

      My guess is the Canes will be desperate tomorrow. They don’t match up well with the Rangers. They probably would prefer the Islanders or Panthers. Assuming the Isles handle business.


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