For the first time this season, the New Jersey Devils were playing a team of considerable quality. The Tampa Bay Lightning is more than just Steve Stamkos. They have a strong set of forwards across four lines. They have a very capable defense led by Victor Hedman. Goaltending is thought to be improved. And they just polished Montreal off 7-1 last night. It's early in the season and given that they coasted to victory while still scoring goals, the likelihood that the Lightning were tired was low. The Devils would have to find a way to win somehow. They managed to do that by a score of 2-1. They didn't do it easily, though.
The start of the game was poor with seven straight shots for Tampa Bay. Cory Schneider had to be excellent early and he was, then and throughout the night. New Jersey just struggled making clean passes into and within the neutral zone. That only exacerbated the difference in speed, which led to more attacking opportunities for the Lightning. Eventually, the Devils settled down their passes, were able to capitalize on a few more of the Lightning's botched puck movements, and shot-count became more even. Still, Tampa Bay set and maintained a lead in shooting attempts. That reflected the ebb and flow of the game, where Tampa Bay pressed for more opportunities with lulls coming from the Devils' own attacks.
This made the game difficult for New Jersey were those stretches where poor decisions were made. Like taking four penalties, most of which were not good ones to take. At the end, Tampa Bay only got five shots on net on their power play, but it put the Devils in a spot and usually the Lightning carried over that time into more offense when the Devil left the box. There were several cases where the Devils iced the puck, keeping certain players already struggling out on the ice. There were even a handful of times where the Lightning were inches away from scoring and the Devils escaped due to a whiff on the puck, an errant pass, a desparate deflection or block, or Schneider saving the day. The one that beat Schneider wasn't so pretty but that was also a function of some hideous defending: the combination of Bryce Salvador turning into a pylon and seeing three guys in white converge on one Lightning player and not the eventual scorer, Alex Killorn.
At the same time, it wasn't like the Devils did nothing at all and scraped by with magic. They played their best overall in the second period, nearly matching the Lightning attempt-for-attempt. The Patrik Elias unit did well early; and the Travis Zajac line provided more usefulness. A very strong shift by Travis Zajac, Mike Cammalleri, Jaromir Jagr, and Andy Greene was finished with Zajac getting denied on a turning attempt by Evgeni Nabokov's left toe - and Zajac firing the rebound past the toe and a sliding Victor Hedman. The Devils responded to Killorn's equalizer with a quality power play. After their worst of the night, the Devils were able to set up and move the puck effectively around the Lightning's zone. It ended when Martin Havlat's shot was re-directed by Elias in front. Nabokov stopped it but Cammalleri was at the right place and at the right time for the put-back. In the dying seconds, while the Devils committed the sin of icing the puck (twice), they held on well. They forced Tampa Bay to wait until the final minute to pull Nabokov, they didn't allow any easy shots from the middle, and Zajac won two big faceoffs after those two icings that led to clearances.
I would say that Tampa Bay had the better of the run of play tonight, but the Devils found a way to get a result. That's crucial after a poor start, on the road, and against a quality opponent. Tonight was a difficult job and easily their most difficult so far in this young season. They can, should, and hopefully will improve. But they got it done and that's the important thing.
The Opposition Opinion: Clark J Brooks has this recap up at Raw Charge for the Tampa Bay perspective.
The Game Highlights: The Devils won with not one, but two goals off rebounds. Check them out as well as plenty of saves by Schneider in this highlight video from NHL.com:
If You Didn't Like Salvador, Then This Was Your Game to Hate: Bryce Salvador is arguably one of the worst players in the NHL among all captains. If Andrew Ference wasn't so similarly terrible, he'd be the worst. The main complaints against Salvador are sound: he's slow, he adds nothing on offense, he's not a good passer of the puck, he gets lost in his own end at times, and his decision making isn't good. Some of this can be hidden on a penalty kill or , But Salvador was on full display tonight.
Just off the top of my head: His fumbling of a puck led to Tampa Bay's lone goal. He lost players cutting to the net. He ended up with more even strength ice time than any other Devil, 19:26, not because Peter DeBoer wanted him out there; but because there were several shifts where he was so pinned back, he had no choice but to stay on. While a -4 in Corsi isn't bad, he was on the ice for more attempts against than any other Devil. Salvador would have given the Devils faithful a laugh when he a did a spinmove on a blocking attempt that wasn't in the shooter's way. At least, his 360-degree no-scope stick-swing would've if it wasn't so bad that it makes fans like me sigh in disappointment. At least he didn't take a penalty, which isn't exactly high praise on its own. He's the team captain and so he's not sitting for anyone. That only adds to the frustration. If you wanted to show someone why #24 raises the ire of so many Devils fans, then this would be a good game to show that person.
One Line, Two Line, Uh, Where's the Other Two: Getting beat. Adam Henrique, Ryane Clowe, and Michael Ryder really didn't do much all night long. Ryder had a glorious opportunity to score in the first period when the entire Tampa Bay team left him alone in front. Ryder may have delayed a bit too much as Nabokov slid across and denied the should-be goal with his blocker and stick. Excellent save and it was Ryder's only shot of the night. That unit saw plenty of Brendan Morrow and Brett Connolly - and didn't win. But what really hurt them was their lack of possession going forward. Clowe looked especially slow, Henrique was invisible, and Ryder was just "there." I'd like to see how this - and other lines - do when DeBoer has the last change before I start breaking things up.
I would love to see the fourth line get changed because they got wrecked again. Ruutu helped make an important stop but he is wasted along side Stephen Gionta and Jordin Tootoo. Gionta had some ugly giveaways such that he should be buying Schneider a steak dinner this week. Tootoo added very little good and a bunch of icings, including my personal favorite: the dump-in two feet behind the red-line. This trio got beat by almost everyone, and Jon Cooper made sure Tyler Johnson and Killorn would see them. No matter who was the defense pairing behind this line, they got beat. When it was Salvador and Marek Zidlicky, the ice was generally tilted in one way. Among their few positives, Gionta got hooked by Stamkos that led to the game breaking PPG. That's a thing but one among other poor plays. Something's got to give on that line because it's been a net-negative for three straight games. Three wins isn't a good reason to keep them in place in my view.
Showing You Why They're Here: In contrast, Martin Havlat and Mike Cammalleri showed the Devils faithful why it's a good thing they're here. Havlat only played just over twelve minutes overall, but good things generally happened when he was on the ice. He stayed on pucks like his stick had a magnet, he maintained possession in the face of pressure, and he made good reads with the puck. Unlike the fourths and thirds, he was a reason why the Elias line got plenty of the offense (a.k.a. "spark") going, especially early in the game. He picked up a secondary assist so his night was not without contribution. He had a fine game.
Cammalleri's contribution was more obvious: a power play game winning goal. However, he was more than that. He played significant minutes on both special teams. He forechecked well. He worked hard against pressure like Jagr and Zajac did, like that pass he made to Greene that led to Zajac's goal. He was willing to set-up down low; he got rewarded with his PPG. He even showed toughness when he got hit high by Jason Garrison with a cross-check. He ended up leading the Devils with four shots on net, too. He, too, had a fine game.
Man of the Night: 27 shots may not seem like a lot, but there were plenty of dangerous ones from the Lightning. That team seems to be loaded with players who take strong one-timers. Schneider came up time and time again (the post helped one time on Ondrej Palat). The goal he allowed to Killorn was a bit weak as it slid under his pad. But he was massively important in this result; especially early on when it looked like Tampa Bay was going to continue their beat-down ways on New Jersey as if they were Montreal. I liked how he squared up his body on several of the one-timers and held on to a lot of pucks.
The One That Wasn't, Or Good Call: The New Jersey Devils came perilously close to conceding the first goal of the game tonight and for the first time this season. Nikita Kucherov retrieved the puck behind the net and nearly beat Schneider to the left post. Tuomo Ruutu was there for support, but Kucherov nearly jammed it in past Schneider's toe. He (and his teammates) acted as if he did, but the referee (Chris Rooney or Ian Walsh, I didn't get the number) immediately waved for "no goal." A lengthy review ensued and there was no angle that showed the puck clearly going over the line.
Agony & Ecstasy: The Devils' third power play was terrible. They rarely got set up, Marek Zidlicky lost the puck more than once, and the team spent more time in their own end instead of Tampa Bay's. Their fourth power play was more ideal. The Devils gained the zone cleanly. They successfully found seams after that drop back pass in the neutral zone, followed with a pass to either side. They moved the puck around effectively, setting up players for shots. Defensemen were jumping up appropriately and forwards had options. It was also the one that ended with a goal, but the build up looked more like what they wanted to do. Let's see how much more of the latter we'll see as opposed to the former.
Rookie Game: On the one hand, it wasn't that good of a night for Damon Severson. He took two obvious penalties, including an obvious one in the third period up 2-1. That's bad. However, he rode with Andy Greene, saw plenty of Stamkos and his unit, and somehow came out solidly ahead in possession. That's good. Such as it is with young players; you often have to take some bad with some good.
But Adam Larsson fans should take a closer eye to Eric Gelinas. I liked Gelinas' shooting but he and Jon Merrill spent plenty of even strength time on defense. Gelinas was limited to only 9:19 of even strength ice time and just over twelve minutes overall. I didn't notice any significant drop in ice time from period to period, so I don't think he got hurt (unless I missed it). Maybe #22 will be the one coming out for #5. We'll see.
Regarding Florida: Hey, online hockey-writer community, check out Tampa Bay! They had a big crowd that made noise and stuff. And they're in Florida! Yes, the State of Florida. It's almost like building an organization to ice a really competitive team around a big star brings in attention, tickets, and money! Next time you see someone lament the other Florida team's attendance, then hit them with a #HOP and let them know about the Lightning.
I still got a kick out of hearing one of the broadcast mics picking up someone whistling a familiar tune. Can't imagine why.
Lastly: While it wasn't pretty or desirable, this is the first time the Devils won three games in a row since last November. It feels good, man.
Your Take: The New Jersey Devils are 3-0, making the road trip a successful one on points alone. What did you like and not like from this game? Was I mistaken in how awful Salvador was? Or the other two lines? Who would you pick as the Devils' best skater tonight? (I'm assuming we all would agree Schneider was an ace tonight.) What, if anything, impressed you about the Lightning? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who followed along in the Gamethread & Twitter with @InLouWeTrust. Thank you for reading.