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New Jersey Devils at Tampa Bay Lightning: Game Preview #81

The New Jersey Devils' season will end in Florida. But first, they will visit a really good Tampa Bay Lightning team that could use the win to take the Atlantic Division. In this game preview, learn why they are so good among other thoughts.

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

You want scoring? Check out the opposition. They're about it.

The Time: 7:30 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 880 AM WCBS

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (32-35-13) at the Tampa Bay Lightning (48-24-8; SBN Blog: Raw Charge)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils had their home ender against Our Hated Rivals.  The first period demonstrated yet again how inferior the Devils are against teams that can move the puck effectively and drive the play.  The Rangers out-shot the Devils 19-4.  While the Rangers had the benefit of some power plays, it was a beat down at evens.  The visitors scored first when a faceoff win turned into Kevin Hayes getting the puck fed to him from behind the net for an open one-timer.  Not long after that, Ryan McDonagh blasted a shot off a faceoff win through traffic to make it a 0-2 deficit and sending the thousands of Rangers fans at the Rock into ecstasy.  The Devils would absolutely get a goal against the run of play.  After wasting their first power play for the first minute or so, all five members hit perfectly clean passes that finished with Patrik Elias beating Cam Talbot low for a score.  Despite the possession advantage, the Devils were only down one goal.  They put up more of a fight in the second and put up more penalty minutes on the board. The Rangers had four straight power plays, all on legitimate calls, to make it seven for the evening.  Schneider and the PK crew killed off everything in the middle period.  The Devils pushed forward for an equalizer in the third period and came close. Alas, a deflection by James Sheppard on a sharp-angled shot by Dominic Moore beat Schneider low to make it 1-3.  Steve Bernier turned an over-commitment by Talbot into a puck Derick Brassard put in to make it 2-3 right after Sheppard's goal.  The Devils had life and tried to find an equalizer. Alas, they couldn't put the final play together. After Schneider got pulled, Jon Merrill botched a D-to-D pass right to Kevin Hayes.  Hayes passed it off to Carl Hagelin to ice the game past a sprawled out Merrill.  The Devils lost 2-4, the Devils fans left in disgust and resignation, the thousands of Rangers that filled most of the arena celebrated their big win and booed the Devils players off the ice.  Fan Appreciation Night, indeed.  I wrote 3,000-plus words about the loss that could be summed up in two: that sucked.

The Last Lightning Game: Last Saturday, the Lightning visited their cross-state rivals, the Florida Panthers. After an even (shots were 7-7) and scoreless first period, the Lightning, well, struck.  Tomas Kopecky tripped Ryan Callahan. About a minute later, Steven Stamkos hammered a one-timer above the left circle for the game's first goal.  About five minutes later, Stamkos made it 2-0 when he sniped one shortside past Roberto Luongo.  The Panthers brought the shots in the second period, 15 to be exact, but Ben Bishop brought the stops to maintain the score.  In the third period, Tampa Bay would make it 3-0.  Stamkos fed a long rebound up to Ryan Callahan up ice.  Callahan got some space away from Alex Petrovic and beat Luongo with a shot that he should've held onto.   The Panthers tried their best to get on the board, but Bishop wasn't having any of it.  Within the last two minutes, Tampa Bay recorded an exclamation mark with a fourth goal.  Jonathan Drouin was battling for the puck behind the net, won it, went for a wraparound, and Tyler Johnson potted in the rebound.  The Lightning won 4-0 over their state rivals. That had to have felt real good.  Kyle Alexander has this recap at Raw Charge.

The Last Devils-Lightning Game: Way back on December 21, the Devils began a back-to-back set at home with the Tampa Bay Lightning.  The game started off decently enough for the Devils. Adam Henrique tapped in a puck to convert an early power play.  Patrik Elias scored a beautiful goal with a turnaround backhander to get the puck past Matt Carle and Evgeni Nabokov's right shoulder.  However, the same issues I've been lamenting in the past game, the past few weeks, and the past few months became prevalent.  The Devils struggled to move the puck, make defensive plays that didn't end with a clearing attempt or clearance, and just didn't threaten Nabokov all that much. Tampa Bay eventually took advantage, put Keith Kinkaid under siege, and they would get back in the game.  Steven Stamkos made it 2-1 in the second period with a third effort after Ryan Callahan couldn't put it in after two whacks at the puck.   Within the final minute of regulation, Evgeny Kucherov picked up a loose puck in the slot, went around Callahan and Andy Greene, and backhanded the puck past Kinkaid to make it 2-2.  A shootout would be necessary to end this game.  With all kinds of tension that comes with a shootout, the Devils would succeed with Patrik Elias scoring his first shootout goal in seemingly forever and Kinkaid denying the last chance by Jonathan Drouin.  That made it a 3-2 Devils win.  I expressed relief (and a lot of invective towards Michael Ryder) in my recap of the win. For the opposition's perspective, here is Kyle Alexander's recap at Raw Charge.

The Goal: Slow down Stamkos.  The Lightning are obviously more than just Steven Stamkos and A Bunch of Dudes. The Lightning lead the league in average goals per game; that takes more than one man lightning the lamp. Still, he's one of the league's top goal scorers given he has 42 goals and he's second only to Alex Ovechkin in the NHL for this season.  He's also one of the league's most prolific shooters with 261 shots on net.  His shooting is almost picture-perfect at times from his really quick release to his accuracy at putting it on target and how much power he can put on it.  If nothing else, the Devils should at least try to not make the game a highlight reel for #91.

What Is There Left to Play For?: For New Jersey, nothing. For Tampa Bay, a shot at winning the Atlantic Division.  Right now, the Lightning are two points behind Montreal for first in the division.  Both teams have played 80 games.  The Lightning do have more regulation and overtime wins, which is the first tie breaker. So if the Lightning can tie the Canadiens in points, then they'll get a wild card opponent in the first round of the playoffs.  If they finish second to the Lightning, they'll likely get Detroit.

Even Strength Stormers: What will make Tampa Bay such a difficult opponent in the playoffs is that they're more than just scorers.  Again, the team averages over three goals per game and they lead the league in even strength shooting percentage at 9.1%.   But, more importantly, the Lightning have been very good in terms of possession.  According to War on Ice, the Lightning are fourth in the NHL in CF% with 53.2%.  Their defense is solid. Anton Stralman has fit in like a glove, Matt Carle and Victor Hedman have been very solid, and a young guy named Nikita Nesterov looks real promising.  They also have several forwards that just drive the play well.  Stamkos isn't just a prolific shooter and scorer, he's done well against tough competition over and over.  Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, Ryan Callahan, and Nikita Kucherov have done more than just be productive players on the scoresheet. They're also winning their match-ups regularly. Those who have been lower on the depth chart like Jonathan Drouin, Brian Boyle, and Cedric Paquette have done well in this area, zone starts in mind.   This isn't an offense first, second, and last team. This is a Lightning team that can control play and do a very good job of it.  That will be key in the playoffs.  It will also be why you shouldn't be surprised if they steamroll the Devils tonight in terms of attempts, shots, and overall play like so many teams before them.

Those Non-Stamkos Players To Know: You're probably familiar with Ryan Callahan. He's a do-a-lot-of-things-well forward and he's got 24 goals and 30 assists to his name this season.  The others only make Tampa Bay's near future brighter. Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov are young and already so productive with the Lightning.  Johnson has 27 goals and 42 assists; Palat has 16 goals and 44 assists; and Kucherov has 28 goals and 33 assists.   Those three may be used together as they were against Florida, something that could give a slower, not-so-aware Devils squad some real issues.

Jonathan Drouin is what I would call an X-factor.  Highly touted from the 2013 draft, but his first season of pro hockey has yielded a mere four goals and 75 shots.  He does have 28 assists, though, so he's been helping somebody score goals.  In time, the 20-year old will get his shot going or at least have it be used way more often.  Per Left Wing Lock, he's been used as a winger with Stamkos and Callahan.  He could do some real damage if the Devils focus too much on Stamkos and Callahan.

In their bottom six, there are some players that could become a real threat.  Valtteri Filppula hasn't been a big shooter with only 96 shots, but his 12 goals and 36 assists point to him being a contributor of sorts.  He continues to be a part of their power play, so he can definitely be a factor. Cedric Paquette has chipped in twelve goals from a more defensive-zone-starting role; he could be worth keeping an eye on.  While he was sent home sick from Wednesday's practice according to this tweet by Erik Erlendsson, Vladislav Namestinkov is another young Lightning player who has carved out a spot in the roster; he has seven goals and nine assists in 41 games.   Killorn has been nursing an injury, Erlendsson doesn't think he'll be coming back before the postseason.  Who might be coming back? Some guy named Victor Hedman.

Hedman returned to practice and skated with Matt Carle per this tweet by Erlendsson.  While it's not announced, Erlendsson tweeted later on Wednesday that the seventh defenseman from practice, Slater Koekkoek, was re-assigned to Tampa Bay's AHL affiliate, Syracuse.  That tells me that Hedman's likely going to play tonight, which is quite a big development.  He leads the Lightning in average ice time per game, he's only two points behind Stralman to lead the blueline in points, and he's got a powerful shot.  The Lightning could still use Jason Garrison and Braydon Coburn to return to round out a solid set of defenders for the postseason.  For tonight, this means the Devils may have some depth to exploit.  Hedman-Carle can take on the toughs.  Stralman and Nesterov can provide plenty of support going forward as a second pairing. The Devils should try to exploit a third pairing of Mark Barberio and Luke Witkowski.  Unfortunately, I would expect Jon Cooper to protect that pairing as much as possible.

In Net: While it's not confirmed who will start in net for the Lightning, their goaltending got better as the season went on.  The Devils won't be seeing Evgeni Nabokov tonight.  It could be the team's starter, Ben Bishop, who has a decent 91.9% save percentage at evens. It could be the young backup Andrei Vasilevsky, who has a 92% save percentage at evens.  Either one should provide a stiffer challenge than Nabokov.  Elias isn't likely going to beat either with a turnaround floating backhander.

Final Call Ups: Let's touch on the Devils for tonight's game. There could be a brand new look on the blueline.  Tom Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice on Wednesday that New Jersey has used their final two call-ups for this season. They called up two defensemen: Seth Helgeson and Raman Hrabarenka.  They're both large men. We've seen Helgeson earlier this season.  After 21 games, I'd say he's like a younger, larger Mark Fraser.  Hrabarenka may be making his NHL debut tonight.  While he hasn't played a full AHL season, his eight goals and sixteen assists in 48 games places him second to Brandon Burlon in scoring by Albany defenseman.  Gulitti speculates this may be a result of Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas getting banged up against the Rangers on Tuesday.  I don't think New Jersey would bring up two defenders if there wasn't a need on the blueline; so Gulitti may be right.  I would temper expectations as Helgeson's own skillset is limited and it could be Hrabarenka's first NHL game.  Still, it should make for some tasty match-ups for Cooper.

What Else?: Your guess is as good as mine.  Neither Chere or Gulitti are in Florida right now, so who knows if the Devils even practiced.  It may not mean much.  With one newbie on defense and Helgeson also appearing, it may be best for New Jersey to not decide one of the scratched (Ryder, Havlat, Harrold, etc.).   I would like to see Stefan Matteau back with Travis Zajac and Mike Cammalleri.  I would move Adam Henrique to play with Elias and Dainius Zubrus, allowing Jordin Tootoo to go to a fourth line and move Reid Boucher to play with Scott Gomez and Steve Bernier.  That would give the Devils a line they can try to match with Stamkos.  That would be one more than they had from the Rangers game.  Of course, I stand to be proven wrong.

As far as who is in net, might as well roll with Cory Schneider so Keith Kinkaid doesn't get totally shelled with a possibly weaker defense in front of him.

Lastly: I openly wonder how many Tampa Bay fans will also be paying attention to Detroit playing Montreal at the same time as this one.

Your Take: It's the penultimate game of the season. After Saturday night, it won't matter anymore. So what would you like to see in general from the Devils?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.