It had been exactly 15 months since Sabres winger Jochen Hecht had scored a goal in First Niagara Center and more than 14 months since he tallied anywhere in the NHL.
Sure, Hecht scored five goals during his six-game stint in December in the DEL, the top league in his German homeland. But his go-ahead goal in the third period Saturday against New Jersey was something more. It was his first of the season with Buffalo and came as a huge relief to the 35-year-old, whose NHL career looked over last April after a series of concussions.
“I had a few in Germany so I count those too,” a smiling Hecht joked after the Sabres’ 4-3 shootout win over the Devils. “But it feels good to finally get the monkey off the back.”
Hecht backhanded home a quick shot from just above the goal line. Devils forward Steve Bernier told New Jersey reporters the puck hit his stick before getting through goaltender Johan Hedberg.
“I thought I had an angle to put it in the net,” said Hecht, who has always been fond of shots from near the goal line. “I just threw it at the net and hoped for the best.”
It was Hecht’s first goal since Dec. 30, 2011 at Washington and his first at home since Dec. 2, 2011 against Detroit. Hecht, a 21-goal man for the Sabres as recently as three years ago, had just four in 22 games last year.
The goal was Hecht’s 134th as a Sabre, tying Jim Lorentz and Maxim Afinogenov for 18th-most in franchise history. The keys to the play came from rookie Mikhail Grigorenko, who found some open ice in the neutral zone and came into the Devils end with speed.
Grigorenko worked the puck hard down low and behind the net before feeding it to Hecht.
“We don’t score every time but I’m trying to do this all the time,” said Grigorenko. “When I gave it to him, I saw the goalie was at the other post and on his knees. I knew Jochen had some time and would shoot it hard on his backhand. It was a really good shot.”
Grigorenko played team-lows of nine shifts and 6:36 of ice time. He narrowly missed a tap-in for his second goal of the season on a nice feed from Drew Stafford in the first period. The assist was his third of the season.
“We tried to get him out there as much as possible in the matchups and even when we didn’t to see how he’d do,” said interim coach Ron Rolston. “There’s certainly signs there. The way he’s playing, it’s just the consistency now. Today’s game was better than the last game. The one before that was good.
“So he had good, off game and I thought he was good again tonight. So now it’s just buliding on those. When you build those, you build more minutes and other situations come off those minutes.”
“I’m really happy. We won the game and I had a point,” Grigorenko said. “Every time I go on the ice, I want it to be a really good shift. Who knows? It might be the last shift of the game I get. I want to do something good every time I’m on the ice.”
The Sabres are the NHL’s best team in shootouts this year at 3-0. The Devils are tied with Calgary as the worst at 0-3 after going 12-4 in them last year to help them get a playoff berth that eventually landed them in the Stanley Cup final.
Sabres goalie Ryan Miller has stopped six of seven shots and Buffalo shooters are 6 for 7. Jason Pominville is 3 for 3.
• Rolston said he’s hopeful Thomas Vanek (upper body) will be ready for tonight’s game in New York. It was the second absence of the season for Vanek, Buffalo’s leading scorer with 27 points.
• Patrick Kaleta on drawing three penalties, including two from a clearly agitated Kovalchuk: “It’s my job to get in there. If guys are worried about me, then I’m doing my job because they’re not worrying about the game.”
• Winger Brian Flynn, 24, played an uneventfal 8:50 in his NHL debut after getting called up from Rochester with Vanek out. Flynn, a free agent signee from the University of Maine, was the Amerks’ co-leader in goals with 16.