Tonight's game for the New Jersey Devils is meaningless to them. Their opponents, Tampa Bay Lightning, needed a win to keep up hopes for winning the Atlantic Division. Still, the game was at least close and competitive. The Lightning definitely had shifts where they would make the Devils look lost and confused. But the Devils were able to get pressure themselves and the game was a lot closer at even strength than it was overall. Of course it would. The 3-4 overtime loss the Devils suffered tonight had one really obvious direct cause: penalties. The Devils had to kill eight penalties and they were beaten on three of them, including the game winning goal.
Seriously, eight penalty kills. That's not average hockey, much less smart hockey and/or the seemingly now-mythical Devils hockey we once to saw. The Devils have been more common visitors to the penalty box in the last few games. They were shorthanded seven times against the Rangers on Tuesday. Six times against Montreal last Friday. Four times, which is a small amount compared to recent games, against Columbus last Tuesday. Eight times tonight. The Devils' penalty killers and the goalies have been impressive in those games to limit the effect to only one power play goal in those games. However, playing with fire eventually leads to being burned and the Devils were burned for three goals out of those eight penalty kills.
The goals themselves weren't necessarily total failures. The first one was a blast from the center point by Nikita Nesterov. He wound up, fired through traffic, and it got through and past Keith Kinkaid. The Devils shut the door for the majority of that penalty kill prior to that one shot. Sometimes, they just get in. That's understandable. The second one was a one-timer from Steven Stamkos. He was denied a chance to get one off, the puck caromed to Ondrej Palat, who sent it across to the slot where Stamkos didn't miss a second chance. Eventually a team featuring such a feared shooter is going to get an opportunity to have him open in a dangerous location with so many shorthanded situations. That will eventually happen. Lastly, there was the game winning goal. Mark Fraser was about to be torched by Tyler Johnson in the neutral zone, so he dove trying to knock the puck away. Instead, he took down Johnson. That penalty carried into overtime and Johnson would make it count. Down low, he presumably tried to find Palat open on Kinkaid's left flank. Instead, Seth Helgeson kneeled anticipating a pass and the puck went off his shin and past Kinkaid's left flank. A bad bounce, indeed. But in a 3-on-4, the Lightning were just in full control prior to the goal; it's not like the other penalty kills where the Devils kept them at bay. Again, these opportunities just being given are dangerous in of itself.
What's more is that the calls weren't particularly awful calls. There were plenty of really dumb ones. Adam Larsson coming out of nowhere to cross-check Cedric Paquette down for the unacceptable act of standing by a goalie after a whistle was blown kicked things off. The calls continued from that point onward. Let me list them: Seth Helgeson high-sticked Johnson away from the play. Tuomo Ruutu bumping Ben Bishop in front of the referee. Damon Severson cross-checking Johnson while on defense. Larsson throwing a puck over the glass. A too many men on the ice call because the Devils got caught in a change. Severson piling into Stamkos amid a scrum by the net shortly after Stamkos came out of the box. And Fraser's final trip on Johnson. Out of the eight, there wasn't any that I would say were weak. Just a large lack of discipline. It's not like the Lightning were being particularly annoying or chippy; the Devils just lost control of themselves. In a way, that may be worse than the three power play goals against. While those goals weren't necessarily the result of terrible play, terrible decisions led to those situations.
I would have loved to know how this game would've turned out at even strength. Whereas overall shooting attempts featured a huge lead by Tampa Bay (48-64!), the Devils were only out-attempted at evens 38-41. Shots at even strength were, well, even at 18 each. Ben Bishop made some difficult stops, but he looked more surprised by some of the plays than I would've expected. The Devils looked rather good in stretches in the third period, particularly in the final minutes between Severson's second penalty and Fraser's trip. Furthermore, the Devils actually scored three goals in regulation which is a feat in of itself these days for such a low scoring team. From the standpoint of "competitive hockey is acceptable," I was satisfied. But then there were all these penalties and Tampa Bay made the Devils pay for it. Again, it's moot for them, but it's a crummy way to close out a season all the same.
The Game Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The NHL.com Devils Time on Ice Log | The Natural Stat Trick Corsi Charts | The War on Ice Game Stats
The Opposition Opinion: Check out Raw Charge for an opposition opinion.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here's a video featuring two surprising goals by a Devil, one really bad first goal allowed, and plenty of power play goals against:
Bernier Gets a Brace: Steve Bernier surprised many, including myself, with two goals tonight. The Devils scored the first power play goal tonight in this game and it came three seconds after Mark Barberio was called for holding. There was a scrum off a faceoff, Bernier picked up the puck, and fired one shortside on Bishop. I looked up and saw a bunch of Devils congratulating each other. It was that fast. The second was similarly quick in terms of a response. After Stamkos' power play goal, Scott Gomez played the puck behind the net, Adam Henrique knocked it out towards the slot, and Steve Bernier was in the perfect spot to shoot it past Bishop short-side. It came sixteen seconds after Stamkos' goal, which made it 3-3. They were goals that mattered. Combined with two other shots on net and the fact that the Gomez line was just very good at even strength - when the Devils could play at even strength - I'd say he was the best Devil forward tonight. For someone looking to make some money this summer, that's a good thing.
By the way, the other two power plays for the Devils? In two words: status quo.
Easily the Best: If Bernier was the Devils' best forward, then the Lightning's and the game's was Tyler Johnson. Four of those eighteen even strength shots came from his stick, including Tampa Bay's first goal. Johnson got two on the power play, including the last one of the game that went off Helgeson and into the net. On top of that, Johnson got fouled three times which at a minimum kept the game away from 5-on-5 play.
Most of all, Johnson and his linemates Palat and Nikita Kucherov were just awesome. Whenever they were on the ice, the Devils seemingly put up a collective question mark on defense. Their speed and their passing was a cut above the rest of the Lightning tonight. They were creating plenty of the damage on Tampa Bay's eight power plays, as they contributed to all three power play goals. It's not an accident that those three have been quite productive behind Stamkos this season.
It was important that they played well as the Stamkos was line was quiet at even strength. Ryan Callahan and Jonathan Drouin were relative non-factors tonight. I had to look up the summaries to confirm Drouin even played tonight. Stamkos at least contributed four of the team's eleven power play shots and scored a goal. But outside of that, he got fouled and took a lazy holding call in the third. But since Tampa Bay is more than just Stamkos and a bunch of dudes, their effective and quick second line stepped up and had a huge night which led to two more points in the standings. Johnson was the standout, but all three were great.
Seriously, That First Goal Against: The Devils were guilty of puck watching a few too many times, particularly in the first period. It contributed to a period of being out-shot 3-8 and nearly led to two goals scored by a wide open Lightning forward on Kinkaid's left flank. Instead, it led to just one. Johnson carried the puck into the zone and passed it to Kucherov. Johnson goes right as Kucherov crosses over towards the middle. Andy Greene and Adam Larsson both converge on Kucherov. Kinkaid follows and overcommits, expecting a shot. Kucherov delayed enough to be able to get pass to a wide open Johnson down low. Johnson easily put it in the empty net to make it 1-1. It was just horrid to see live and it all came from no one accounting for him once the first pass was made. The Devils would sharpen up defensively as the game went on, though being down a man undercut those efforts.
The Called Up Defensemen: With so many penalties, it was a heavy workload for Andy Greene and Adam Larsson. Larsson took two and still managed to play nearly eight minutes on the PK and just over 26 minutes tonight. Mark Fraser got just over twenty minutes thanks to a bit more than five minutes on the PK. Needless to say, the co-coaches were keeping Raman Hrabarenka and Seth Helgeson protected as much as possible. Even they had to take some PK shifts, though. How did they do? Well, I wasn't particularly impressed. They really didn't do much. Neither really helped out on offense, though I didn't expect Helgeson to contribute anything. And he didn't, just like Hrabarenka. The OT goal against was just a bad break for him, though I wasn't happy with his penalty. Overall, he looked the same as he did from the previous 21 games; a similar player to Fraser. Hrabarenka didn't really do much. I'd chalk some of it up to nerves, but he didn't seem like he knew what he really needed to do out there. Given that he only played just over ten minutes, I think the co-coaches did the right thing to prevent that from being catastrophic.
The Return of Gionta: Well, he did OK with Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus (yes, he played tonight). He looked like his old puck-bulldogging self on the penalty kill. He drew a call while shorthanded. He also inadvertantly created a goal. He got the puck in the slot and fired, only for it to be blocked by Luke Witkowski. The puck caromed to Patrik Elias, who fired it past Bishop to make it 2-2. The bar may be set low for him in general, since his role is to make sure not much (good or bad) happens when he's out there. So anything good is a plus.
Take Him Away: After witnessing Stefan Matteau with Travis Zajac and Mike Cammalleri, I really don't want to keep seeing Jordin Tootoo with those two. The line got wrecked at evens and Tootoo added zero to them. At least Matteau is quicker. Zajac and Cammalleri put in a lot of minutes, though they weren't as effective as they were against Montreal or even the Rangers save for the final few minutes of the third period. I wouldn't say they had great games. But we know this combination with Tootoo has been dubious; I don't know why the co-coaches keep going back to it beyond the co-coaches not being very perceptive.
Loose in the Net: Keith Kinkaid had a lot of shorthanded situations to handle, which can be rather stressful on top of the fact of facing a team that averages over three goals per game. While Kinkaid made several important stops, he looked looser than usual. There were some moments where he wasn't really set for a shot and he had to quickly sprawl to try and recover out of the danger of a loose puck. While that didn't burn him, it isn't what we've been used to seeing from him. He over-committed on the first and arguably the third goal; bad decisions that turned out awry. Still, I wouldn't say he was at fault for the loss. Just that he wasn't perfect or performed as we've seen in previous appearances from him. Still, he didn't add to the eight penalties the Devils had to kill, so I feel for him in that regard.
Lastly: There's a good chance The Goal for Saturday's game will be "Don't take so many dang penalties." A really good chance.
Your Take: The result won't matter in a few days, but surely you have something to say about how this game went. What did you make of the eight penalty calls? What about the eight penalty kills? What can the Devils do about them to avoid gifting over ten minutes of man-advantage time to Florida on Saturday? What did you think of the returns of Helgeson and Gionta, as well as the debut of Hrabarenka? How surprised were you with Bernier's two goals? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's overtime loss in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and followed @InLouWeTrust on Twitter. Thank you for reading.