Truthfully, the Devils deserved to lose this game. While they did not start off as poorly as they did against Dallas, Tampa Bay pounded them at even strength. Especially in the second period, where the Lightning out-shot the Devils 15-5, all at 5-on-5 play. The Lightning only used 11 forwards and most of them attacked at will for much of the game. The Lightning also dominated at the faceoff dot, winning 35 of 58 (60%) faceoffs. Faceoffs were definitely key for Tampa Bay's goals as both of them came off defensive zone draws for New Jersey.
What was curious was that the Lightning decided to sit on their lead. Mark Fayne fired a slapshot through traffic in the third period to cut the lead in half. The Lightning responded with some attempts of their own but then it stopped. They stopped attacking. They iced the puck repeatedly within the final 4 minutes of the game. They basically said, "You know, Devils, we've been in control for most of this game, but we'll allow you to pin us back for this last bit." I didn't understand it then, and I don't understand it now.
Of course, as the final score indicates, the equalizer never came. The good bounce or deflection or shot or whatever that New Jersey needed never came. And so the streak ended with the better team winning tonight's game.
I'll explain further along with other thoughts on the game after the jump. Please go to Raw Charge for a recap from the Lightning's perspective.
The Highlight Video: Here's a highlight video of tonight's game from NHL.com.
A Bit of Perspective:The Tampa Bay Lightning went into this game as the leaders of the Southeast Division, sitting in second place in the Eastern Conference, and owned one of the best home records in the league. They were coming off a massive beatdown of Phoenix, 8-3 to a team that previously won their last 8 games. As I noted in my preview, they are offensively strong and an excellent possession team.
If nothing else, understand this: the Lightning are a very, very, very good team. It's not like the Devils took it easy against a "weak" opponent and paid the price or got stunned by the opposition. They lost to a superior team. That's all.
Evidence of Control: At the end of the game, the Lightning had a Corsi of +15. They out-shot the Devils 29-19 at evens; and it wasn't until the third period where any Bolts ended up negative in Corsi. While holding Steven Stamkos to -1 and Martin St. Louis to -4 is pretty good; it doesn't mean much when you look at Vincent Lecavalier (+12), Simon Gagne (+11), and Teddy Purcell (+13). Why, yes, they were a line tonight and they contributed a goal and 7 combined shots on net.
In Which I Disagree with a Possible Narrative #1: For whatever reason, Jacques Lemaire decided to mix up some of his lines tonight. Ilya Kovalchuk was double-shifted (and a lot: 27:45 in ice time), rolling with a combination of Travis Zajac, Jason Arnott, Jacob Josefson, and Nick Palmieri. The fourth line had Vladimir Zharkov on it. Mattias Tedenby was pretty much glued to the bench. This was new after the last month and a half where the lines were what they were and the only variation would come either between changes, after special teams, or Kovalchuk double-shifting.
Yet, I don't think it mattered in tonight's game. Namely because the only line that remained untouched got destroyed: the Elias line. They have had some great games over this run, but there were times where I wondered if I could smell them from New Jersey. Brian Rolston (-9 Corsi), Patrik Elias (-9), and Dainius Zubrus (-11) were pinned back over and over. The only time they looked like their usual selves was in those final 5-7 minutes of the game, but even then, the Lightning were hanging back for the eventual storm.
Given that the team was sluggish at best in Dallas and Tampa Bay took control of the flow of the game early, some changes up front make some sense. I just wish Lemaire went all the way and mixed up the second line when it was apparent they were getting beaten pretty badly.
Speaking of Poor Corsi: Double-shifting Kovalchuk did not help at all. Kovalchuk finished at -12 Corsi with only 2 shots on net, 2 blocked, and 1 missed. There were times he went into "beast mode" and willed his way to an offensive opportunity. However, he was not a dominant player tonight. Eric Brewer kept him in check, as Guy Boucher threw him out there to take on #17 and the defenseman came out ahead in Corsi with a +2. Still, he kept his point streak alive by dishing the puck to Mark Fayne just before his goal.
One Game Left Before Burnination: No, Trogdor isn't coming to New Jersey. Jacob Josefson has played his eighth NHL game this season. He can play one more game before his contract kicks in, burning a year off his entry level contract. (Reminder: That's a bad thing.) So how did he do? Well, he wasn't bad. He managed a +4 in Corsi, he screened Dwayne Roloson on Fayne's goal, and he had a shot on net. While I'm sure someone's ranting away about Lemaire hates kids, Josefson got 13:49 of ice time tonight, mostly with Zajac and Kovalchuk. That all said, I think he should go back to Albany where he can play more minutes, get into special team situations (he did not tonight), and develop.
But They Held Stamkos and St. Louis to 1 Shot Each: The Lightning clearly out-shot the Devils, owned them in Corsi, and so several Bolts got to put rubber on Johan Hedberg. Sean Bergenheim and Adam Hall may not be the big names like St. Louis or Stamkos; but the two combined for 9 shots on net. Bergenheim put up 4; Hall had 5; and they created havoc down low. Purcell wasn't able to score after a hat trick against Phoenix, but it wasn't for the lack of trying - he had 5 shots on net. Lecavalier had 3 shots on net, 2 missed, 2 blocked, and one whiff on Hedberg's flank in the first period.
If you wanted to know why the defense - especially Andy Greene and Anssi Salmela - looked overwhelmed at times, this explains it. No, the two top scorers on Tampa Bay didn't shoot the lights out on New Jersey. They didn't have to since the rest of the team was bombing away.
Even the title is a little misleading. Stamkos dominated at the dot, winning 10 out of 13; including the one that led to St. Louis' one shot on net: the first goal of the game. St. Louis also missed the net twice which is notable because both times he had Hedberg beaten dead to rights and he just misfired. The Lightning could have scored more tonight and the Devils were lucky to get out of the second period only down by 2 goals.
Could the Moose Have Stopped Those Two Goals?: Not the first one, and I'm not sure on the second. The first one was a shot off a faceoff win from St. Louis. The shot went through at least three bodies; I highly doubt Hedberg saw it. The Moose may have saw the second one, the goal scored by Gagne. There wasn't as much traffic in front, if any. However, Gagne doesn't even get the puck if Zubrus (who actually was the only Devil faceoff taker to win more than 50% of his draws at 5-for-8) didn't inadvertently kick it right to him in the high slot after the faceoff. That's why I'm hesitant to fault Hedberg for the second goal.
Other than those two spots, Hedberg did the best he could. The Lightning attacked him hard for 40-45 minutes and forced him to be great. If it wasn't for some luck and a hot Hedberg, then this game is a blowout.
OK, so The Devils Offense Struggled - A Guess as to Why: The Devils struggled at times on their breakout due to some heavy forechecking by Tampa Bay. However, the real killer was an inability to get puck in Tampa Bay's end and sustain some possession. In the first period, if they got it over the blueline, there would be a shot, perhaps a rebound, and then a clear by the Lightning. In the second period, the Devils had trouble just getting any possession or penetration on offense outside of a breakaway by Kovalchuk. Getting through the neutral zone wasn't easy, but the Lightning defense did a very good job in preventing the Devils from setting up for most of the game on offense. Passing lanes were blocked, men in black jerseys collapsed in the slot perfectly, and outlet passes hit home. I was waiting for some kind of adjustment in the second period, but it never came. I wonder why.
Did it look better in the third period? Sure. The Devils were losing, they took a few more risks, and, most of all, the Lightning eventually hung back. Their defense wasn't as aggressive, which finally got the Devils to get some sustained pressure on offense. Guy Boucher should have had his team continue doing what they were doing; they were fortunate to escape with a 2-1 win.
Special Teams: Good for the penalty kill. They had 2 power plays to kill, 3:30 of time to waste, and they remained perfect. Their streak is now at 20 straight kills. What's more was that the skaters deserve the credit. They only allowed Tampa Bay to get one shot on net; though, St. Louis missed a wide open net on a backdoor play.
The Devils got one power play and it wasn't so bad. The Devils maintained possession for about the first minute, but they couldn't get a clear path to Roloson. They only got one shot on net and was blocked a few times on some forced shots. I would have liked to have seen the second unit get some time, but Tedenby ended that with a holding penalty.
The Tedenby Section: Tedenby only played 1:40 tonight. I fully understand that it's a waste for him to play so little; both for himself and the team (why go to 11 forwards from the get-go). That said, he didn't do himself any favors that in one of the few shifts he does get, he holds a defender (Brett Clark) in the offensive zone on a power play. What's more is that the Lightning were in control of the puck throughout the game, forcing the Devils to defend quite a bit. I doubt that Tedenby would have stemmed or turned around the flow of the game.
In Which I Disagree with a Possible Narrative #2: Immediately after the game, Glenn "Chico" Resch referred to this game as a "tough loss." I can see why he and others would say that: it's the end of a winning streak, it was a close game at the end, and a late flurry didn't make up for being second-best on the ice earlier.
However, I have to disagree. I don't see how this was a "tough loss." The Devils weren't the better team on the ice. The numbers don't lie; the Lightning had the better of possession and used it to attack early and often. They were in control and they were unlucky to not have scored a few more goals by way of their own shooting, a last-moment defensive stop, or Hedberg. Sure, the Devils prevented Stamkos and St. Louis from walking all over the place, but the other Bolts were able to do as they wished for the first two periods and for parts of the first half of the first. I'm not really seeing where the Devils were unfortunate to not win tonight.
Perhaps I'm splitting hairs for the definition. The signs of their winning streak ending showed in Dallas and it came to fruition in Tampa Bay. I think it was a deserved loss by New Jersey; but not a horrible one. Besides, as I said earlier, the Lightning is a very, very, very good team.
That's how I saw tonight's game. What did you notice in the Devils' performance? Who in particular would you like to see do better next time? How do you think the Devils will respond to this loss? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thanks to all of the commenters in the Gamethread and thank you for reading.