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Game 78 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM WFAN

The Game: The New Jersey Devils (43-28-6) vs. the Tampa Bay Lightning (35-34-7)

The Last Devils Game: Coming into this game, I was confident the Devils could get back on track. The Blackhawks, despite playing well, lost their top defenseman (Duncan Keith) to suspension and have had shaky goaltending all year. If the Devils could put some shots on Casey Crawford early, sneak one or two through, perhaps they could dominate the Hawks and coast to an easy victory.

Well, the Devils did get an early goal on Crawford courtesy of a Petr Sykora goal via a nice feed from Calder candidate Adam Henrique, but weren't able to get another one past Crawford in regulation. The Blackhawks evened the score mid-way through the third on a Brent Seabrook shot from the point that beat the screened Martin Broduer. With both teams not really pushing the issue, the game quickly went into overtime and then the shootout.

The Devils were able to secure the extra point via a pretty goal scored by Travis Zajac in the fifth round of the shootout. But the real stars of the game were the Devils penalty killing unit and their goaltender. The penalty killing unit, who was superb all night, successfully fought off a goal when down by two men for 1:08 during the second period. Brodeur made some key saves to keep the Hawks off the board and played much better in the shootout compared to his last effort vs. Toronto last week.

John has the recap of the game here. Blackhawk SBN site Second City has their recap here.

The Last Lightning Game: On Tuesday night the Boston Bruins quickly found out that Tampa Bay will not end this season quietly. After beating the Flyers on Monday night, Tampa Bay had to turnaround and play a Boston team who is starting to play like Boston again. Tampa had the lead for much of the game but three goals in the third period by Boston (one of which by Brian Rolston. Yes, that Brian Rolston) stunned the Lightning and they fell 5-2 to the Bruins. SBN site Raw Charge has a recap of that game up on their site here.

The Last Devils vs. Lightning Game: In the grand scheme of things the last game between the Devils and the Lightning game played on February 26th wasn't that meaningful. But that game marked Marek Zidlcky's first game as a Devil and it also was a trap game. It was sandwiched between a game two days earlier vs. the Vancouver Canucks and one day before a game vs. our hated rivals in the most overrated arena in the world (if you don't know I was referencing the Rangers there, please hit yourself. Now). So that game was viewed almost as a 'gimme'

It didn't work out that way though. After jumping out to a 1-0 lead the Devils came out flat in the second period, allowing two goals by Martin St. Louis. The Devils tied things up quickly in the third, but just as quickly let up another Tampa goal. St. Louis added his third to complete the hat trick and the Devils fell to the Lightning 4-3

John's recap of that game can be viewed here. Raw Charge's Cassie McClellan had the recap of that game from a Lightning perspective here.

The Goal: Score more than two goals and let in less than two goals. Too often recently, the Devils have either let up a bunch of goals or not scored enough to put teams away. This goal, while simple, has been extremely tough recently for New Jersey.

Friday, they also can't afford to leave a team like Tampa Bay hanging around until the middle of the second period. The Lightning has enough offensive talent to strike quickly and throw the Devils back on their heels.

At this point in the year as they look to lock down a playoff spot, the Devils have to be assertive (they may want to throw a few hits around too, I hear that sometimes helps) and dicate play to the Lightning if they are going to be successful. This is a game where I can see the Devils depth winning out over Tampa and hopefully the third line of Jacob Josefson, Alexei Ponikarovsky and David Clarkson can set the table with good possessions/scoring opportunities.

For additional thoughts about the Lightning, please visit Raw Charge, the SBN site for Lightning fans. For some additional things I am looking for tonight, read on after the jump

Larsson Return to the Lineup? In a surprising decision Adam Larsson was a healthy scratch for the first time in his career on Tuesday.

On one hand, it was overdue. Larsson seems to have rushed back from a back injury suffered earlier this year and lately seems to have hit the 'rookie wall'. Larsson has played in 64 games for the Devils so far this year. The most he had played in an SEL season was 60 (2009-10) and that total was a combination of the regular season and the playoffs. He also was making rookie mistakes (positioning, puck clearing, etc.), so I can see the need to let him watch the game.

On the other hand, I think the team should have done this earlier and especially not when they were already short a defender in Anton Volchenkov. They also should have presented this as more of a 'rest' situation to the media so that Larsson wasn't in the awkward spot of defending his play.

I would expect him to return tonight, but perhaps the coaching staff feels he will benefit from another night off.

Rolling The Same Lines? For much of the year, lines have been sacred under Pete DeBoer, with only the occasional change to the third or fourth line. Now, after Zajac's return to the lineup he has reconfigured the top six twice in an effort to generate some additional scoring chances. He hasn't gone full 'Lemaire' on us yet but I am happy he is mixing things up a bit. I think the current lineup is something I would be willing, as a fan, to go to war with in the playoffs.

That said, I can't help but wonder the dynamics of the 'other' wing position on the top two lines. Currently Henrique and Dainius Zubrus are added to the combinations of Ilya Kovalchuk/Travis Zajac and Zach Parise/Patrik Elias respectively and I would like to see if switching Henrique/Zubrus might be something that works. Henrique has good chemistry with Parise and perhaps Zurbrus could be a more competent version of Nick Palmieri who was successful on the wing of Kovy/Zajac last year.

That Stamkos Fella Is Pretty Good, Let's Not Let Him Score: Much easier said than done, right? With 55 goals on the season (five in the last three games) Stamkos is making a case for Hart Trophy consideration. DeBoer will have to ensure he matches his top defense pairing along with the Elias line against Stamkos to try and nullify him. With Elias now with Parise, the old adage 'a best defense is a good offense' comes to mind. If that line can drive the play into the Tampa zone and have good puck possesion time, I think the Devils will be successful tonight.

Really Vinny? You Couldn't Wait One More Game!: After missing 18 games, Vincent Lecavalier is going to return to the lineup tonight for Tampa Bay. The Tampa captain is returning from a broken hand and gives the Devils another presence to worry about. He probably won't see his normal ice-time tonight, but he adds another weapon to Tampa's offense that the Devils must account for.

That's my take on the game, now it's your turn. Can the Devils stop Stamkos? Will Larsson suit up? Should there be more line changes? Can the Devils actually look like a playoff team? Please leave your thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thanks for reading.