Good Friday. There's a game tonight, the first of a back-to-back set in Florida.
The Time: 7:30 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (15-11-7) at the Tampa Bay Lightning (14-18-1; SBN Blog: Raw Charge)
The TiqIQ Ticket Link: If you're in the Tampa Bay area, then you might as well see the Devils play. It's not like you have reason to get excited about USF or some such. Go to TiqIQ and buy a ticket: New Jersey Devils tickets.
The Last Devils Game: The Devils went up to Kanata to play the Ottawa Senators. The first game without Ilya Kovalchuk looked dire as the Sens pinned the Devils back early; Chris Phillips scored through traffic; and Kyle Turris was a post and a trickle away from a 2-0 lead within the first ten minutes. One angry timeout later and the Devils managed to settle the game down, though Guillame Latendresse hit the post on a one-timer in the slot later in the first. Still, the Devils were behind. The second period saw a completely different tact as the Devils made passes, got stops, and repeatedly went into Ottawa's zone. They made Ben Bishop sweat and their hard work eventually paid off when Andrei Loktionov was in the right place at the right top to pot in a loose puck to tie it up. The Devils kept pushing, but the Senators got a late score when Turris took a shot from distance in a 2-on-2, Martin Brodeur left a rebound, and in the meantime Colin Greening split through Adam Larsson and Anton Volchenkov. Greening was free to the puck and slammed it in to make it 2-1. The third period didn't change the script because of it; the Devils carried the majority of play and Marek Zidlicky made an equalizer happen on a fantastic individual effort. The Devils dominated the shot count and possession, though not in scoring chances. Ottawa would have something resembling offense in overtime, but the best chance was a rebound for Adam Henrique in the dying seconds that never got put back in because the puck bounced past him. In the shootout, the Senators got two goals but the Devils only got one. So the Devils came away from Ottawa with only a point. I emphasized the positive of the game in my recap.
The Last Lightning Game: The Lightning fired Guy Boucher on Sunday morning and called up Jon Cooper from Norfolk to be their new head coach. The Tuesday game in Buffalo would be Cooper's first and his new team got him a result. Early on, Patrick Kaleta did Kaleta things to Steven Stamkos, who responded. While Stamkos got to sit in a box for it, Buffalo did nothing with it. Or with any of their power plays. Or on offense in general as the Sabres put up a whopping 14 shots on net. Stamkos would get his revenge his way with a late first period goal. The Lightning made Buffalo pay for an elbowing call on Robyn Regher when Martin St. Louis converted a power play 8:17 into the second period. It would be the only goal out of 16 Lightning shots in the second, but the 2-0 lead would be enough. The Sabres' fury of five shots in the third did yield a late goal from Jordan Leopold, but that would be it. Cooper gets his first NHL win as Tampa Bay won 2-1.
The Last Devils-Lightning Game: Times were bleak back on March 5. The Devils were winless in five as they prepared to host the Lightning. The first period featured the Devils as the better team on the ice, carrying the run of play. But one mistake - a lost battle by Bryce Salvador, Mark Fayne dropping away from the slot to cover it - led to a goal scored by Tampa Bay's Nate Thompson. The second period was just straight ugly from New Jersey. The Devils struggled to get forward and get shots against a team that has been all about giving them up. The Lightning were in control and added to their lead. A three-on-two led by Vincent Lecavalier turned into a two-on-one at the dots. Alexander Killorn fed Martin St. Louis, who put one up, off, and past Johan Hedberg. About ten minutes later, Salvador got schooled by Killorn, put one in from the high slot, and sent Hedberg to the bench at 3-0. Keith Kinkaid got his first taste of the NHL and made an impressive stop on Stamkos in the third period. He also got his first GA when Thompson trailed on a rush and scored on a shot through a screen. The Devils did get on the scoreboard twice. Adam Henrique finished an excellent play by Ryan Carter PK by beating Anders Lindback five-hole. Travis Zajac dug out a rebound off an Ilya Kovalchuk power play blast and Patrik Elias put it back in the net. The Devils scrambled for something late, but it wouldn't come. B.J. Crombeen iced the game with an empty netter to make it 5-2. It was far too little, too late in the Devils' then-sixth straight loss. My recap of the game is here, and no one was happy. For an opposition-based take, Cassie McClellan had this happier recap at Raw Charge.
The Goal: Get closer on shots. I touched on this in the Ottawa recap. I went into more detail about the team's shooting distances in general on Tuesday. Most of all, Jerry's count of the scoring chances from the Ottawa game revealed that while the Devils had the possession and shots, they didn't have many from a dangerous position. 13 chances out of 34 shots makes me think the team could improve in that regard. While shooting distance doesn't affect shooting percentage as one may think; it's something the team should focus on doing tonight. The Lightning have been one of the worst possession teams in the league this season and they're a touch under averaging 30 shots per game both in 5-on-5 situations and in general. There should be opportunities to attack, especially if the Devils somehow repeat the effort - not the shooting, but the effort - they had on Monday night. If they want to make the most of it, they have to get away from settling for fifty-footers from Salvador or Anton Volchenkov, have the forwards lead the way, and take more shots in and around the slot. If they can do that, then they'll be in a far better position to get a result tonight than they would if they shot as they did in Ottawa earlier this week.
It'll be important to do that against a team as dangerous as Tampa Bay. I did not mistype anything in that preceding sentence. They're dangerous. Yes, they're not likely to make a playoff run. Yes, they have had a goaltending crew this season that's hanging around a 90% save percentage. Yes, they have one of the lower 5-on-5 save percentages in the league per Behind the Net at 90.7%. Yes, they routinely get out-attempted at even strength. Yes, they only average 27.1 shots per 60 minutes in 5-on-5 play and 26.5 shots per game in all situations. But, dear reader, they have something the Devils don't: a hot shooting percentage.
Yes, the Tampa Bay Lightning are shooting at 11% in 5-on-5 play according to Behind the Net, which is the highest rate in the league prior to Thursday's games. It's far, far better than the Devils' 7.3%. The Lightning are second only to Pittsburgh in goals for in 5-on-5 play with 78. While they have the league's lowest SF/60 in 5-on-4 play, they're shooting at 13.1% in 5-on-4 situations, which is above league median. Basically, this is a team that can score. You know some of the offensive weapons all too well. Do I really need to tell you how Steven Stamkos is a threat? He's second in the league in points with 43 and leads the NHL with 23 goals. Should I have to tell you how excellent Martin St. Louis is, given he's just one point behind Stamkos with 42 and leads the NHL with 34 assists? I would provide a similar non-question question about Vincent Lecavalier, but he had a broken foot per Damian Cristodero of the Tampa Bay Times so I don't think he'll play. Even without Lecavalier, St. Louis and Stamkos alone can make a defense feel like it'll be a long night.
But remember, the Devils kept Stamkos to nothing and St. Louis only had the one goal in their last meeting. Those who are Not Names have been hot. Just look at the team's basic production stats at NHL.com. Rookie sensation Cory Conacher is fourth on the team in scoring and he has nine goals on 50 shots. Useful secondary scorer Teddy Purcell is third on the team in scoring and has seven goals on 53 shots. In terms of second/third line forwards, Nate Thompson, Benoit Pouliot (who's injured, I believe), and Tom Pyatt each have six goals while shooting less than 50 shots and averaging less than 15 minutes of ice time. That's a lot of high shooting percentages and that's what makes this team dangerous. It's not enough to see & stop the stars. The rest of their guys have hot sticks too. That means the Devils skaters can't be lackadaisical against anyone.
And based on Cristodero's report from Wednesday's practice, Cooper's first with the team, he may have Tampa Bay play a faster, aggressive game. Great. A team that's been scoring quite a lot will try to push the pace more. To me, this means the Devils defensemen, particularly Salvador, Volchenkov, and Larsson (he's not slow, but the errors, man) have to be aware of their positioning should they swarm so they don't get caught. Similarly, the Devils forwards need to be careful when they try to get the puck deep such that they don't end up caught in their end while the Lightning counter-attack.
So they get goals. Giving up too many led to Boucher's demise and Tampa Bay's unenviable position in the standings. Cristodero tweeted that Lindback is still recovering from a high ankle sprain, something the goalie sustained on March 20. Mathieu Garon has been the starter in his spot, he started against Buffalo, and so I suspect he'll be the man in their net again tonight. He only had to face 14 shots on Tuesday, which is great for him but I would take that to be the exception than the rule. Even with a new coach, a sub-45% close-score Fenwick team is still likely to play more in their own end more often than not. In terms quality of competition, I'd expect the best Devils to see plenty of Victor Hedman and Sami Salo. According to Behind the Net, they're low in on-ice Corsi rate but they also have the toughest jobs, especially with a sub-40% offensive zone start percentage. They'll likely be followed behind by Matthew Carle and Eric Brewer, who both play a lot and to, well, not a beneficial possession effect. Their third pairing has Radko Gudas, who has done well in his role such that he's had shifts with their top four in games, and Keith Aulie, who averages a little over 12 minutes a game for a reason. In terms of getting attempts, the Devils should be able to get plenty against their top four. The question is whether they can get into scoring chance locations to put shots on Garon. They will need to do this, especially if the Lightning play a high tempo game and turns this into a game of "who can keep up the offense?" The last month and a half gives me pause to rely on the Devils offense to prevail. Hence, I think the Lightning are more dangerous than their record would suggest. Besides, you underestimate any opponent at your own peril in this league.
Fortunately for New Jersey, they've had three days without a game and everyone who is active should be rested for this back-to-back set. Stephen Gionta and Bryce Salvador were injured in the game against Ottawa and did not play after the first period, but they both traveled with the team and could be ready tonight. According to Tom Gulitti's post-practice report on Thursday, Salvador said he was fine, Gionta will see if he's good to go this morning. It's good to know they had minor injuries and the team's depth isn't further tested. OK, the Devils would probably be fine on defense without Salvador for a game or two, but I'm not going to say the Captain returning is a bad thing. The injury list might even be shorter as Alexei Ponikarovsky also practiced on Thursday according to the same report. He's also a gameday decision. It would be good to have Ponikarovsky in the lineup as a big winger to fill space and win battles; but I don't want him to push it if another night off ensures his health and gives him a chance to play beyond limited minutes.
As far as the lineup, Gulitti's report from Thursday's practice has the same starting lines and pairings from the Ottawa game. I'm hoping Martin Brodeur will start because in a back-to-back with Tampa Bay and Florida, Moose should not get the game against the high-scoring Lightning. I'm not going to complain about the defense given how tight they were in Ottawa after a horrid first period. All I'll ask is a better night from Larsson because he was the opposite of Andy Greene (who was marvelous) on Monday. Matt D`Agostini looks to start again with Andrei Loktionov and Adam Henrique. While Henrique was awesome on Monday, he was often awesome away from those two. While Loktionov scored, I'd like to see him and D'Agostini get more involved and take more shooting attempts. If D'Agostini doesn't, then I'd like to see Steve Bernier get another shot up top if only for his strong play at times this season. As far as the fourths go, if Ponikarovsky can't go, then I'd like to see Harri Pesonen in again. Unlike, say, Krystofer Barch, Pesonen actually brings a little energy to the ice. Still, it's going to be on the shoulders of Zajac, Patrik Elias, and David Clarkson to lead the offense at even strength. They've been possession machines and Clarkson has been a big shooter all season long, so we can have confidence in their performance. Let's hope they drive in closer for shots than what they and their teammates did in Ottawa.
What do you think will happen tonight? Will the Devils be able to own the puck and create more chances against the Lightning? If so, will it result in goals? Can the Devils keep the Lightning at bay in terms of shots and hopefully cool their sticks a little bit? What do you think the Devils should do about a potentially more aggressive Lightning team tonight? Who do you think will be a stand out player tonight? Will the Devils start this back-to-back with a win? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.