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Game Preview #79: New Jersey Devils at Tampa Bay Lightning

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Tonight, the New Jersey Devils will play their last road game of the 2015-16 season against the Tampa Bay Lightning. This game preview goes into what the Lightning are good at, who's now healthy for the Devils, and more.

Hopefully, there's less of this; albeit the uniforms will be different for both sides.
Hopefully, there's less of this; albeit the uniforms will be different for both sides.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

The last one on the road for this season.

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (37-33-8) at the Tampa Bay Lightning (44-28-5; SBN Blog: Raw Charge)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils were in Sunrise for Rat Night against the Panthers.  Rats became the story of the game in time.  In a mostly decent first period, the Devils went up 1-0 when Mike Sislo slammed in a loose puck to convert a power play.  However, the Panthers really put the Devils to the sword for the final five minutes or so of the first period and the entire second period.  They dominated, forcing Keith Kinkaid to pick up where he last left off: being the only Devil on the ice doing his job rather well. In the second period, though, Kinkaid would be beaten.  Jonathan Huberdeau got free behind the defense (laterally) and went hard to Kinkaid’s right.  The pad stopped the first shot but not the put-back that made it 1-1.  Then the rats came down and the fans got a warning for throwing objects on the ice.  Early in the third period, Huberdeau walked up to the right post and squeezed a shot between the post and Kinkaid’s back to make it 1-2.  The rats came down and the Devils got a power play for delay of game.  They didn’t do anything with it nor the short 5-on-3 that came at the end. The carryover of the second power play in that sequence went well, but the Devils struggled to do anything with the puck despite leading in shots for the period.  Late in the game, David Warsofsky got stripped of the puck by Jaromir Jagr, who led a 2-on-1.  Jagr faked the shot and made a pass to Aleksander Barkov, who finished the play to make it 1-3.  More rats, another power play, and even with Kinkaid pulled, the Devils did little.  Blake Pietila did manage to be at the right place and the right time to put back a rebound with about six seconds left in the game.  That was his first goal.  It was still too little, too late from the Devils as the lost 2-3.  Like Tuesday’s game with Boston, this was not at all a good performance as explained in my recap.

The Last Lightning Game: On that same night, the Lightning hosted Montreal.  Whatever hope the Lightning faithful had in keeping ahead of Florida took a hit on that night.  Montreal came to play.  Goaltender Mike Condon was unbeatable for the night.  In the first period, David Desharnais scored at about halfway through the first to make it 1-0.  Within the first minute of the second period, Torrey Mitchell scored to make it 2-0.  As the game went on, Tampa Bay’s shots faded going from 14 in the first, 9 in the second, and 3 – yes, a Devils-esque 3 – in the third period.  While the Lightning offensive output faded, Montreal got a goal in the third period from Phillip Danault.  The Lightning lost 0-3 in a stinker of their own.  Check out Clark J Brooks’ recap at Raw Charge for more.

The Last Devils-Lightning Game: On February 26, the Devils hosted the Lightning.  Well, the Prudential Center hosted them.  The fans and stadium staff received them.  The Devils players? It’s arguable they didn’t show up for this one.  The Lightning took control of the game early on and never let go to win what was their fifth game in a row.  Alex Killorn scored in the first period. Ondrej Palat and Steven Stamkos scored in the second period.  Matthew Carle scored to make 4-0 in the third period.   Ben Bishop only had to make 21 saves for his shutout.  Among all of the bad performances by the Devils season, this was definitely one of them.  Gerard gave it a "double F-minus" in his recap. Over at Raw Charge, Brett Frieman has this recap of the loss.

The Goal: Just fire it the puck.  With only 15 and 25 shots in their last two games, they just need to fire away.   Let’s consider what happens when someone pinches as an example.  What’s almost as bad as the 40 shots allowed in each of their last two games has been the fact that they’ve conceded several odd man rushes in those games.  Often times, it was the result of a defenseman being aggressive to either join the offense.  Understandable given the state of the offense, but those plays don’t result in shots on net or.  The dubious decisions to pass it or mishandling a puck often has led to not only an easy clearance for the opposition but also an easy opportunity to score.  Even a routine shot at the tummy button would’ve been a more productive play.  In their most recent game, even when the Devils spent more than five seconds in Florida’s end of the rink, the decision to just move the puck along only to find something better often led to a bad pass the defense took, an interception of a pass, or just losing the puck in some other manner.   At this point of the season, just shoot it.   Maybe they’ll even score some goals or at least not get out-shot by a 6:1 ratio in a period.

Does the Opponent Need This Game?: Tampa Bay laid an egg on Thursday. Combined with Florida beating the Devils, their cross-state rivals are atop of the Atlantic Division.  The Lightning would probably want that division title instead of facing either Detroit or Boston in the first round.  They’re so close to getting it, I don’t think they would just mind letting Florida have it.  If that wasn’t enough of an incentive for this game, then consider this.  Tonight is Tampa Bay’s final home game of the season.  Who wants to end their home campaign before the playoffs on a sour note?  No one.  Especially not after that 0-3 loss to Montreal.   Good luck, Devils.

Your Latest in Injuries: Everyone who was on the trip practiced. Not everyone can or will play on Saturday.  So here’s the summary from Tom Gulitti’s reports from Friday’s practice (linespost-practice report):

  • Cory Schneider will start.  I hope he does not have to face 40 shots in his first appearance since the beginning of last month.
  • David Schlemko and Jacob Josefson could play but it’s a coach’s decision.  Neither practiced on one of the three defensive pairings or a forward line, so I’m doubtful of a switch.  I wouldn’t mind it. I'd take Helgeson out for Schlemko in a heartbeat. But I’m not confident of anything since they were essentially extras. We'll see.
  • Patrik Elias won’t play.  He might on Tuesday or Thursday next week.
  • Tyler Kenendy did play on Thursday and will play again, likely to start with Adam Henrique and Devante Smith-Pelly.  Joseph Blandisi had that spot and, as not uncommon for this season, played his way off of that line.
  • Jordin Tootoo and Jon Merrill were ruled out for the remainder of this season, so notall of the call-ups from Albany will necessarily return to the Capital District right away.  Again, keep an eye out for such transactions today as it could be a sign of someone else returning to action.

No Joke: Yesterday, I realized that the top five goal scorers on the Devils who are A) healthy and B) still on the team are: Kyle Palmieri (29), Henrique (27), Zajac (14), Reid Boucher (8), and Bobby Farnham (8).  Such is the state of the offense.  For this game. For this season.  If the last game proved anything, even someone like Palmieri trying to take the offense over - he had nine shots on net - it really needs to be a group effort.  And so far this season, as one would have predicted, it's just not there on most nights.  So it goes.

Keep Seeing Him: Steven Stamkos remains the top man to fear up front for the Lightning. Prior to Friday’s games, he’s tied with three others with 36 goals.  Stamkos is clearly Tampa Bay’s top goal scorer; he’s also their leader in points (64) and shots (216). With an average ice time of 19:45, the Devils will get to see a ton of him.

It’s been crucial that Stamkos has been as productive as others that were featured last season just fell off a bit in production. Here are the numbers at NHL.com. Nikita Kucherov has been the exception; there’s a chance he can match his total points from last season. He has 29 goals and 32 assists along with 196 shots; he’s another Bolt to pay attention to.  Given he's been skating with Stamkos according to Left  Wing Lock, you'll see plenty of him as well.  I mean players like Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Ryan Callahan, and Valtteri Filppula.  Let's look at the numbers. Johnson and Palat broke out last season; Johnson led the team in scoring with 29 goals and 43 assists and Palat put up 16 goals and 47 assists.   Both missed their fair share of games this season; yet neither will come close to even matching Palat’s assist totals last season with their points from this season.  Johnson is at 14 goals and 23 assists; Palat has 15 goals and 21 assists.  Callahan exceeded twenty goals last season, now he just has ten.  Filppula was close to 50 points last season, now he’s a few ahead of 25. Given that these are key forwards in the lineup, it's nothing to sneeze at.  At least Alex Killorn’s 39 points is more consistent with his production last season.

This isn’t to say that those players are scrubs and can be ignored. The talent is still there, the points just haven't been there for one reason or another.  Johnson and Palat are still quite fast. They can give a Devils a lot of issues on defense tonight on that alone.  Filppula and Callahan have the experience to pick their spots against said defense to make life difficult.  The larger point is that the 2015-16 Lightning (2.74 GF/GP average) have not been quite as productive as the 2014-15 Lightning (3.16 GF/GP average).  Those players’ production dipping points to that and it's important to recognize that this season's team isn't like last season's team that went nearly all the way.  Regardless, they can still drop a hammer on the Devils if given the chance.  Just look at the last Devils-Lightning game for evidence.

Dominant in the Back: If you think Adam Larsson is good, then check out Victor Hedman.  Hedman has been absolutely dominant in possession given his large amount of ice time (23:02) and that he usually faces strong competition.  He’s head and shoulders above the other Lightning players, who are mostly no slouches in terms of CF%.   On top of that, he’s got a strong offensive component to his game.  Hedman is third on the team in points (8 goals, 36 assists for 44 points) and shots (173).  He represents a large chunk of the Lightning’s offense from the blueline with Anton Stralman pretty much providing the other chunk.  Seriously, not a lot of points or shots beyond those two. With Stralman out for a while with a fractured left fibula, it's all on Hedman now. The thing is, I think he can do it. He will be seen on the power play as much as he will be on the penalty kill.  He’s prone to taking calls, given he’s third on the team in PIM.  But otherwise, he makes good things happen for the Lightning in all aspects of the game.  Hedman is that fantastic.

Strong in the Crease: Ben Bishop is one of the best goaltenders in the NHL.  I would not be surprised if he gets some kind of consideration for the Vezina Trophy.  Bishop has the wins GM’s care about, the good fortune combined with good play that comes with a 90.9% save percentage on the penalty kill, and one of the best even strength save percentages in the NHL at 93.3%. Needless to say, beating Bishop is much easier said than done.  Should the Devils get his backup, it won’t be a completely easier night.  In 21 appearances, Andrei Vasilevskiy has a solid 92.3% save percentage at even strength and a decent 87.2% PK save percentage. With their play combined, the Lightning have one of the lowest goals allowed totals in the NHL at 182.   While the Lightning may not be striking the opposition’s net as often as they did last season, they’ve been superb at denying their opposition.

Good in One Half, Lackluster on the Other: Tampa Bay’s success rates on special teams have a stark difference. Their penalty kill has been very good; they have a top-five success rate at 84.3%.  They’ve been even better in Tampa Bay. Over the whole season, they have conceded only 37 goals out of 236 shorthanded situations.  If that wasn’t enough, they have 7 shorthanded goals.  All of which rank rather well within the NHL.  That side of the special teams should be a strength for the Lightning.  The other side, not so much. Their power play has not been as successful with a conversion rate of 16.3%. Home power plays have done much better than road power plays, so the Devils’ PK won’t necessarily face a poorly performing unit tonight.  Still, the Lightning have 42 goals (below league median of 46) out of 257 opportunities (one of the highest numbers in the NHL).  Not that a good power play is everything, but they’ll enter the playoffs with the worst conversion rate among the sixteen playoff teams as it stands.  There’s Stamkos (14 PPG, 23 PPP), Kucherov (9 PPG, 24 PPP), and four and fewer goals among everyone else. As usual, it wouldn't be wise for the Devils to hand their opposition plenty of man advantages.  It's just that it won't be as ill-advised as it would be if tonight's opponent was, say, Washington or San Jose.

One Last Thought: Good luck, Schneider. Defense, talk to each other. Forwards, help out.  Every skater, please don’t concede the puck so easily.  I suppose that about sums it up.

More Importantly: By way of Raw Charge, check out Deke the Deuce. John and many others suffer from a genetic neurological disorder known as Neurofibromatosis Type II (NF2).  He's raising money that will go to Advocure NF2, which focuses on researching the disorder.  If you can't contribute, please spread the word. It's not like it's a common topic as it is.

Your Take: What’s your take on tonight’s game? Will this game be somewhat competitive for more than a period?  Can the Devils hang with the Lightning? What do you expect the Lightning to do in the postseason? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments.  Thank you for reading.