“Tell me something my friend… You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?”
The year: 1989. The quote: Jack Nicholson as “The Joker” in the DC Comics’ box office smash “Batman.”
For the Sabres, the 1989-90 season was a historic one as the Buffalo franchise commemorated its 20th season in the National Hockey League, going 45-27-8 while finishing with the second-best record in the Wales Conference. Pierre Turgeon and Dave Andreychuk tied for the team lead in goals with 40, Mike Hartman amassed 211 penalty minutes and Daren Puppa won 31 games in net.
The New Jersey Devils went 37-34-9 that season, eight years after relocating the franchise from the Colorado Rockies in 1982-83. New Jersey was competitive but it had yet to take on the identity fans would come to expect. John MacLean, Ken Daneyko, Bruce Driver and Chris Terreri were on the roster but Martin Brodeur would not be drafted until the end of the campaign.
From there, the franchises would go in opposite directions as the Devils went on to capture the Stanley Cup in 1994-95, the first of three Cups in franchise history (1999-00, 2002-03), while the Sabres regressed, trading away most of the commodities it had before rebounding with its second trip to the Stanley Cup Final a decade later in 1999.
Twenty-seven years later and 13 games into the 2016-17 season, the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils are set to dance once again in a pivotal Eastern Conference home-and-home series beginning Friday night in Buffalo and concluding Saturday evening in Newark.
The Devils’ Playground
With both organizations in a heated competition for just eight playoff spots, every inter-conference battle matters in the fight for positioning.
The two-game set is the first meeting of the season between the two clubs, which will meet again for a third time in February. Buffalo is 5-5-3 with 13 points through its first 13 games, on the outside of the playoff picture. Meanwhile, through 12 games, New Jersey is a surprising 6-3-3 with 15 points. If the season ended today, it would qualify, currently sitting among one of the final two wild card spots.
The Sabres have the edge, all-time, in the match-up with a 74-57-17 record in head-to-head competition, but the Devils have won five of the last six games including all five games in the 2015 calendar year spanning the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons. Buffalo defeated New Jersey, 3-1, in its most recent meeting in Newark on April 5, 2016.
But in the entire history of the NHL, the Sabres and Devils have only met once in the Stanley Cup Playoffs — but oh what a series it was.
1994 Stanley Cup Playoffs
The Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils collided for the first and only time in the first round of the 1994 Stanley Cup Playoffs, a memorable seven-game series that featured four one-goal games and a quadruple overtime contest that would go down in the annals of hockey lore among the longest playoff games ever played in NHL history.
The stage was set on April 27, 1994 at Memorial Auditorium in downtown Buffalo. In Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, two of the greatest goaltenders to lace ’em up — the Sabres’ Dominik Hasek and the Devils’ Marty Brodeur were in between the pipes — denied shot after shot as both teams found themselves deadlocked in a scoreless tie, at the end of 60 minutes of regulation.
Neither Hasek nor Brodeur would yield until the fourth overtime period, 65:43 into sudden-death when Jason Dawe and Wayne Presley set up Dave Hannan for the game-winning goal as Buffalo finally solved Brodeur after 125:43 of action to record the 1-0 victory. Hasek needed to make 70 saves to record the shutout, while Brodeur stood tall with 49 saves in the tilt.
Down 3-2 in the series, the Game 6 win kept the Sabres alive in dramatic fashion and still stands among the top-15 longest NHL Playoff overtime games in history. The Devils would have the last laugh, however, as Claude Lemieux and Bruce Driver each found the back of the net while Brodeur recorded 17 saves in a 2-1 Game 7 triumph.
Mi Casa es Su Casa
The Sabres have endured a myriad of injuries this season, including the loss of former Hobey Baker Award winner Jack Eichel, but have weathered the storm with a 5-5-3, .500 record to date despite having Evander Kane, Ryan O’Reilly, Tyler Ennis and Nicolas Deslauriers in and out of the lineup.
Eichel is still expected to be out another three to four weeks so Buffalo has been creative with its AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans. It has been baptism by fire for the Sabres’ youth movement as Nicholas Baptiste, Hudson Fasching, Casey Nelson, Cole Schneider and William Carrier have been rotated in and out of the lineup.
Still, fans have to be content given the circumstances. Kyle Okposo (5-3-8), Ryan O’Reilly (4-48) and Rasmus Ristolainen (0-8-8) are all tied for the team lead in points with eight while Robin Lehner (4-4, 2.19 GAA, .929 Save %) and Anders Nilsson (1-1, 1.95 GAA, .937 Save %) have performed quite well.
The addition of Taylor Hall, acquired from the Edmonton Oilers in a trade for defenseman Adam Larsson, has revitalized the New Jersey Devils and its fan base. Hall has delivered to the tune of five goals and four assists for nine points while appearing in all 12 games for New Jersey (6-3-3). He is tied with Travis Zajac (4-5-9) and Damon Severson (0-9-9) for the team lead in points with nine. Goaltender Corey Schneider has started 10 of 12 games and sports a solid 5-3 record with a 2.27 goals-against average and sparkling .928 save percentage.
This is the second home-and-home series of the season for the Devils, which swept both games of a two-game set with the Carolina Hurricanes on Nov. 6-8. It was won three of its last four including the 4-1 and 3-2 triumphs over Carolina.
Stand and Deliver
If a home-and-home series doesn’t light a fire under the Buffalo Sabres at this point in the season, fans should be worried. There’s nothing like a healthy two rounds to wet your whistle.
If the Sabres drop both games of the series is their season lost? Of course not. But if Buffalo can manage to sweep the Devils and climb above the .500 mark and into the playoff picture, it should do wonders for a team desperate for confidence. And when a fully-healed Eichel steps back onto the ice for blue and gold perhaps the team can look back at this series as a turning point in the season.
Schedule and Details
New Jersey Devils at Buffalo Sabres, Key Bank Center, Buffalo NY — Friday Nov. 11 at 7 pm (MSG, MSG+)
Buffalo Sabres at New Jersey Devils, Prudential Center, Newark, NJ — Saturday, Nov. 12 at 7 pm (MSG, MSG+)
*The New Jersey Devils will host its annual food drive to support its community partners before its game in Newark on Saturday, Nov. 12. Fans attending the Devils-Sabres game are encouraged to bring canned and non-perishable food items to Prudential Center. Devils players and volunteers will collect food items at entrances around the arena when doors open at 6 p.m. Devils fans who bring 10 or more items for donation will receive a voucher for two tickets to a future 2016-17 regular season Devils game.
Goya Foods, the largest Hispanic-owned food company in the United States, will match all donations pound for pound.