BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP)The New Jersey Devils placed their faith in their youngsters to finish out an inconsistent season, and the players responded.
A day after trading key veterans Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac to the New York Islanders, Jesper Boqvist led the Devils’ youth movement by scoring the go-ahead goal with 11:15 remaining in a 6-3 win over Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night.
Pavel Zacha scored two power-play goals, and Jack Hughes snapped a 10-game scoring drought while adding two assists in a game the Devils rallied in after squandering a 3-1 first-period lead. Yegor Sharangovich and Janne Kuokkanen, who scored an empty-netter, had a goal and two assists each.
All five Devils goal-scorers are 23 and younger.
”You don’t know how your team’s going to react after a day like yesterday,” coach Lindy Ruff said of trading two players who had a combined 26 years of NHL experience.
”You’re hopeful with that added responsibility that they’ll push through,” he added. ”I think you saw in the third period, when we got down to three lines, some of the young guys that were playing the best got more ice time and it paid off for us.”
Aaron Dell stopped 24 shots in making his third start of the season and pick up his first win in more than 14 months. Dell had gone 0-6-1 in eight appearances since he made 28 saves for San Jose in a 6-3 win at Edmonton on Feb. 6, 2020.
The win snapped the Devils 0-2-2 skid, and came after New Jersey signaled it was looking toward the future beyond this season by acquiring two draft picks, including a first-rounder, and two minor-league forwards from the Islanders.
Victor Olofsson, Jeff Skinner and Tage Thompson scored for Buffalo, which had gone 3-0-2 in its past five, including a 5-3 win at New Jersey on Tuesday. Linus Ullmark finished with 32 saves in a game between two of the East Division’s worst teams, who are all but mathematically out of playoff contention.
”The winning goal, we had the puck on our stick. We won the draw, had the puck on our stick multiple times and didn’t exit the zone. It ended up in our net,” Sabres interim coach Don Granato said. ”So, they were hungrier than we were tonight. That’s a tough game when your opponent’s hungrier than you, and that was the case.”
Michael McLeod set up the go-ahead goal by catching Sabres defenseman Brandon Montour flatfooted in chasing down a loose puck behind the Buffalo net. McLeod’s wrap-around attempt banked off Ullmark’s pad and into the slot, where Boqvist buried it inside the left post.
The game got off to a furious start, with the teams combining for three goals in the first 3:46.
After Olofsson opened the scoring 53 seconds in, the Devils responded with Zacha scoring power-play goals 1:40 apart.
”It’s never easy to see guys traded, especially guys like Trav and Palms,” said Zacha, who enjoyed his first two-goal outing of the season and fifth of his career. ”I think there’s a little bit more responsibility for us now, and I think we took it and won the game today.”
And then Hughes scored from the slot with 3:56 left in the opening period. A forechecking Sharangovich sparked the goal by forcing Buffalo’s Jacob Bryson to turn the puck over along the right boards.
Ruff was most encouraged by Hughes, the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft.
”I like the fact that he’s battled through this, night after night,” Ruff said. ”I hope that this propels him, that he starts to feel good about his game, a little less frustration.”
Sabres defensman Rasmus Dahlin had the secondary assist on Skinner’s goal for his 100th career point. Five days shy of his 21st birthday, the 2018 No. 1 draft pick became the youngest Swedish-born defenseman to reach that milestone. Erik Karlsson reached 100 points at the age of 21 and 199 days.
It also came in his 180th career game, the second-fastest among blue-liners in Sabres history, behind Phil Housley, who picked up his 100th point in his 106th game.
Sabres forward Taylor Hall was a healthy scratch for a second consecutive game in anticipation the pending unrestricted free agent will be dealt before the NHL’s trade deadline on Monday. Hall signed a one-year, $8 million contract with Buffalo in free agency in October.
ON HISCHIER ALERT
Devils captian Nico Hischier is nearing his return after missing his 22nd consecutive game with an upper-body injury. Hischier, who is still listed week to week, traveled with the Devils after resuming practice on Wednesday.
Devils: Return home for two-game set against Pittsburgh, starting Friday night.
Sabres: Host Washington on Friday night.
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