If the First Niagara Center ice was a pinball machine, the New Jersey Devils would have been guilty of a tilt most of Sunday night.
There were multiple stretches where the Devils hemmed the Buffalo Sabres in their own zone, and a couple that lasted more than two minutes. The play was so interminable and the crowd was so restless the Sabres were getting Bronx cheers just for getting the puck out over their own blue line.
The Sabres were outshot, 39-26, in the game and even gave up yet another short-handed goal. But they didn’t fall apart mentally in the kind of spots they crumbled in earlier in the season. They were physical at plenty of key times and got great goaltending from Ryan Miller.
When Nathan Gerbe beat Martin Brodeur for the only goal of the shootout, they somehow pulled out a 3-2 win over the Devils in one of the stranger games the crowd of 18,703 has seen in a long time.
“Resilient is what it was,” said interim coach Ron Rolston. “We got through it and didn’t break. It worked out all right.”
The Sabres have won three straight for the third time this year and pulled within four points of the idle New York Islanders for eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
The defending East champion Devils, meanwhile, are in complete panic mode. They are ninth, and winless in seven games (0-3-4) for the first time since November 2001.
Buffalo got a first-period goal from Patrick Kaleta – his first in 53 games dating to last February – and a second-period tally from Steve Ott. Jochen Hecht and Cody Hodgson got full marks for great passes.
The Sabres took that 2-1 lead into the third but the Devils got even at 5:46 on a short-handed goal by defenseman Mark Fayne, his first goal of the season. As Dainius Zubrus skated unimpeded through the Buffalo zone and behind the net, he found Fayne for a quick snapshot from the right circle that beat Miller.
“That’s a tough one,” Ott admitted. “All five of us are accountable. ... We definitely need to fish [Zubrus] out hard, if not lay a body on him so he doesn’t have an opportunity to make a play out there.”
The fans didn’t like the short-handed goal, in part because it was Buffalo’s NHL-high seventh of the year against its power-play unit.
And the crowd wasn’t happy with the extended stretches of play in the Sabres’ zone either. Whether trying a clear or a pass, the Sabres simply couldn’t clear the zone for about a 15-minute stretch spanning the first and second periods.
“They were hemming us in the zone but we did a great job on those two-minute shifts keeping them to the outside, blocking shots,” said Ott, reaching hard to find positives. “They weren’t getting great scoring opportunities yet our fans were booing us every opportunity they had.”
“They want to see better but sometimes it’s going to be a battle,” Miller said of the fans. “Sometimes it’s going to be hard. We need their help. We need them to be behind us. We hear them.
“We know they’re not happy but the encouragement we can get when we’re in a tight game, that can help for some of these young guys. So we’d appreciate it. They hang around, stay for the whole game, be excited, have fun. We’re trying our hardest out there. You saw some sacrifice out there.”
Analyzing the fan base is obviously a slippery slope. Especially given the way this season – and much of the last six years – have gone for a group of ticketholders that has had its patience pushed to the max.
“That’s the way it’s been since I’ve been here,” Rolston said. “We understand what it is. Our job is to continue to do what we can do to change that. That’s all we can do. Keep working at it ... win games at home and hopefully get them back.”
And the crowd did respond when it was warranted like on Ott’s goal, a spectacular three-way passing play with Hodgson and Gerbe. And the entire 100 level was on its feet for the shootout and roared when Miller made the final save on Travis Zajac.
“I would be proud if I was from Buffalo to say, ‘My Sabres won that game.’ ’’ Miller said. “It’s the kind of game you’re going to have sometimes. We’re going to try to clean it up so it’s a little prettier but if it’s like that and we get two points I don’t really mind.”