Tonight was the only New Jersey Devils game on the schedule for NBCSN. Tonight, the network had a show that had it all. On paper, the matchup was tantalizing. The Tampa Bay Lightning were hot and coming off four straight wins. They featured the goal scoring machine that is Nikita Kucherov, the always dangerous Steve Stamkos, and a squad expected to make some noise in April this year. The New Jersey Devils themselves were also hot with only one loss on the books and plenty of goals of their own. Together, the two teams combined for eight goals in regulation; plenty of talking points about plays, special teams, and referees; and a full overtime and shootout. What’s more: The Devils beat the Lightning, 5-4, from the shootout.
The game was far from ideal or pretty or even calm. Let’s start from the end out. The shootout itself went to the third skater for a goal, which was provided by Kyle Palmieri. Cory Schneider denied Brayden Point, Kucherov, and a heavily-booed Ryan Callahan for the deciding point. This shootout came as a result of an overtime period bookended by Devils penalty kills. The end of OT was a 3-on-4 survival period of roughly 47 seconds as Adam Henrique was assessed a minor for tripping Ondrej Palat. It was a reasonable call on its own. After a 4-minute stretch filled with moving picks, I was less than happy about the call. But the Devils survived that end.
The beginning of OT was the final two seconds of a penalty kill that ended regulation. That resulted in a 4-on-4 stretch until the next stoppage in play. Which was, again, four minutes into the overtime period. What penalty were the Devils killing at the end? Pavel Zacha was given two minutes for roughing. More specifically, he was given two minutes for trying to start a fight with Jake Dotchin, who wasn’t having any of it. Why? Because Dotchin popped Brian Gibbons in the head - and play continued. Zacha was upset about this and I cannot say I blame him. Nor could I blame the Rock thundering down chants of “Ref, you suck” when only Zacha went to the box. From my view in Section 1, it appeared an official had a good look at it. This tweet by ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski had a screenshot of the broadcast showing that an official (Dan O’Halloran) had a great look at Dotchin taking Gibbons’ head off.
Obligatory "ref staring at the guy getting slugged in the face but calls nothing" tweet pic.twitter.com/YE7tiMgRmS— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) October 18, 2017
Yes, this went uncalled. Retaliation tends to get called and so it was for Zacha. The Devils had to survive the ferocious Tampa Bay power play for 1:58 and hope for overtime. Thanks to Schneider and some stickwork by Jesper Bratt towards the end, they did just that and the Devils received a deserved ovation for getting out of that spot.
To continue back further, the Devils tied up the game only minutes prior to that incident. After a near two-period drought of calls against Tampa Bay, Andrej Sustr took down Nico Hischier behind the net. That could not be let go. With the Devils down 3-4 and struggling to get any sustained offense, this power play was a great opportunity. What transpired was a whole lot of fans yelling “SHOOOOOOOT!” and me wishing the Devils did that when they had a lane. Instead, every good look at the net - looking at you, Taylor Hall - resulted in a lateral pass. A pass that would be great if it connected and the Bolts were not prepared for it. Frustration was mounting as the power play ticked down. Then the Devils get in. Marcus Johansson finds Damon Severson at the center point. Severson slings a pass to Nico Hischier in the left circle. Hischier fires a hard pass to the middle that Drew Stafford re-directs on net. Peter Budaj stopped that but the puck came out to Stafford, who batted in his rebound for an unlikely power play goal to tie up the game. (Video from NHL.com)
The elation was grand. The hope that the Devils could pull this one out was renewed.
Then that hope was challenged with the Zacha penalty and non-call on Dotchin. Challenged again with an overtime period where the Devils mostly dumped the puck away and hoped Tampa Bay would not make them pay. Challenged further with penalty to kill in overtime. Challenged finally with the team’s first shootout situation of the season and hoping their selections would win out. The Devils came through on every challenge to pull out a gutsy, to say the least, 5-4 win.
And this was just the last five minutes or so of regulation plus overtime and the shootout. That’s a whole lot to experience
Prior to that, there were seven other goals. From the first period, it looked like this was going to be all about the scoring as five of those seven goals were scored then. Drew Stafford opened the game up with a shot outside of the left circle that trickled through Budaj for a 1-0 score. Vladislav Namestnikov was found behind the defense after a defensive zone draw by Kucherov. Namestinikov beat Schneider all alone in front for a 1-1 score. Hischier was caught up high on a penalty kill and that opened up space for Tyler Johnson to pass the puck to Ondrej Palat in the slot, who scored to make it 1-2. On a power play of the Devils’ own, Hall sent a killer cross-ice pass to Palmieri. Palmieri hammered in a slapshot to make it 2-2. Late in the first period, Brian Gibbons potted in a loose puck from a Steve Santini shot off the endboards right in front to make it 3-2. The first and third goals allowed by Budaj were pretty soft and I would not have been surprised if he was pulled. But the game’s tone was set: make a mistake and you risk paying the price amid a quickly-played game.
The second period slowed down the scoring, except for the Lightning. The Devils had some good surges with some big chances left unfinished. Such as Gibbons just missing the net on a shot from the slot. Hischier setting up Hall at the left post, only to be denied by Budaj. Late in the period, Hall charged down the wing, found Hischier wide open in front, and Hischer was seemingly robbed by Budaj’s helmet. Making matters worse was that the Lightning were able to break through. Stamkos drew two Devils on a zone entry, which left Kucherov free. Stamkos got the pass through traffic to Kucherov, who just beat Schneider with a great, low shot. Later, Severson and Andy Greene lost a puck to Yanni Gourde behind the net. Stamkos crashed down low and was able to take the puck from Gourde as he was checked. Stamkos went around Schneider for a go-ahead score. The big names (and Gourde) made an impact for the Lightning in the second period and Budaj was much better. At 3-4, though, the Devils would have to battle while trying not to make too many mistakes.
The funny thing is that they struggled through most of the third period. For long stretches, it looked like the Lightning were the team down one and generating offense well. A slashing penalty on Palmieri about eight minutes in did not help the Devils’ cause. Neither did their attempts to go dump-and-chase on a fast Lightning team. Eventually, the Devils were able to get moments here and there. But it took a fortunate bounce on a power play to tie it, some crucial interventions on defense despite some near breakdowns, and Schneider turning into a wall from the 40th minute and onward.
I repeat from the beginning: this game had it all. You wanted scoring? It had eight goals. You wanted skill on display? Lightning’s stars were stars and the Devils’ chances often included Hall, Hischier, and Zacha. You wanted a fast pace? Both teams came to skate tonight. You wanted controversy? Look no further to the non-call on Dotchin and resulting penalty kills for New Jersey. You wanted a winner? You got that and it was the New Jersey Devils. NBCSN got one heck of a game. If this truly is the only one for this season, then I’m fine with this victory being the only one.
The Opposition Opinion: Please visit Raw Charge for an opposition opinion about this game.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com
Super Santini: With Andy Greene and Damon Severson together, your leader in ice time tonight was - Steve Santini. With 25:40, the young defenseman had a big game. While he was a mainstay on the penalty kill with over five minutes of shorthanded ice time, Santini also led the team in even strength ice time with 20:31. What’s more is that when he was on the ice in 5-on-5 play, the Devils had a +3 Corsi differential and a +6 shot differential per Natural Stat Trick. Also per Natural Stat Trick, Santini’s most common opposing forwards were Kucherov, Namestnikov, Point, and Stamkos. Excepting Point, the Devils did really well against Tampa Bay’s top line when Santini was out there. He used his stick well, he did not make too many errors with the puck, and he stayed out of the box. In fact, he drew a slash from Kucherov of all players. He contributed quite a bit on on offense with five (!) shots on net and one miss that Gibbons turned into a goal. Santini had an awesome night.
Not So Super Severson: In contrast, Severson had a rougher night. His 5-on-5 numbers were not too bad. He and Greene were not heavily out-attempted or out-shot throughout the game. However, Severson just had a lot of issues with the puck. He had multiple giveaways, he took some unnecessary risks on passes, and he was caught out for three goals against. Severson did contribute to the equalizer, but his issues tonight were on display. Better luck next time, perhaps?
Mark it Nine but Be Better on D: Will Butcher had a difficult night as well. The Devils were doubled-up in attempts (9 to 18) and shots (4 to 8) when Butcher was on the ice in 5-on-5 play. That is not at all good for a skater, nevermind a defenseman. While he did not have heinous giveaways like Severson - aside from one bad clearance up the middle in the second period aside - Butcher just struggled to keep tabs on the Lightning’s depth forwards. Moreover, Butcher was held shotless again; one attempt missed the net and one attempt was blocked. That said, Butcher did make one important intervention on defense during the Devils’ last power play of the night and Butcher did contribute a secondary assist on Stafford’s first goal. It was not all bad for #8, but it could have been a better night.
The Benched Responses: Jimmy Hayes, Marcus Johansson, and Pavel Zacha were all benched for over two periods on Saturday against the Rangers. All three were active tonight. Hayes did not do too much. He was limited to 7:30 of even strength time and four minutes even on the power play. That is about right for his role. Johansson played over 19 minutes. He did not register a shooting attempt, but he did help Henrique and Palmieri get some of theirs while also taking part on the power play. The unit of Johansson-Henrique-Palmieri really struggled in the run of play. Badly. (At least Palmieri scored those sweet power play and shootout goals.) But, on the bright side, Johansson did not leave a drop pass to nobody in the defensive zone which would have created a heavy attacking shift by the Lightning. Zacha had the best night of the previously benched. He took four shots on net, he hammered the post, he was even at the faceoff dot (6-for-12), and the Devils out-shot the Lightning 9-1 when he was on the ice in 5-on-5 situations. Zacha did take that roughing minor that could have been costly. Given that it was in response to an uncalled high hit by Dotchin, I am not totally unhappy with what he did. At the worst, they were acceptable on the ice - which is a good enough response to playing your way out of the game in a first period.
Poor Nico: Hischier was robbed at the right post in the second period, robbed by Budaj’s helmet towards the end of the second period, and robbed again on a one-timer in front of the net in the third period. It sucks to see him get so close to scoring his first NHL goal, only to be denied. That said, this does not mean he had a bad game. On the contrary, he did earn primary assists on Stafford’s goals. The run of play was not too bad when he was on the ice. Hischier was tripped by Sustr, which led to the important power play goal that tied up the game. He contributed and that’s what counts.
It would have been better if he didn’t leave the middle so open on Palat’s power play goal. That was a mistake in coverage; but it was corrected later in the game.
The Gibbons Factor: Brian Gibbons continues to astound me. Here is a guy that I thought would be marked for Binghamton and play the Mike Sislo style of call-up. Instead, the man has been a CF% force, he’s been eating up big minutes on the penalty kill, he shows little fear on the ice, and he contributes on offense. Tonight: a goal Budaj should have stopped; 16 CF and 6 CA when he was on the ice, which led the Devils in CF%; and a big 4:13 on the PK, which included the final 48 seconds in overtime. This is a man who continues to justify his spot in the lineup. I, for one, will continue to enjoy it.
Stars Make Things Happen: Kucherov, Namestnikov, and Stamkos may have not dominated in terms of CF% or shot differentials (Aside: 5-on-5 team results were 49-49 in attempts and 26-24 favoring NJ). But they contributed or directly scored three of the Lightning’s four goals tonight. They combined for nine of Tampa Bay’s 37 shots on net. When they were given an opportunity to succeed, they made the most of it. They made things happen.
I do have to credit some other Lightning players for having good games. Point was excellent in the run of play; I still wish the Devils drafted him a few years back. He appears to be a very good player among deep set of talented forwards. He had three shots out of eight attempts and was often seen in New Jersey’s end of the rink. Ondrej Palat got his PPG from the slot; it was one of five shots on net as the forward kept up the pace and the attack going at New Jersey. Budaj really sorted himself out after a bad first period.
Stafford and Schneider: Of course, the two critical players in regulation for New Jersey ended up being Stafford and Schneider. While Stafford’s attention on defense was not always great tonight (he didn’t get totally run over, the run of play went better than the Henrique line), the guy was brought in for offense and he brought plenty. He had five shots on net. Two of those got through, scoring the team’s first goal of the game and the fourth, an equalizer that eventually led to overtime. A brace from Stafford is always good to see as is the fact he was able to get his good shot on net. Schneider may have conceded four goals, but none were soft and he was dominant after that fourth goal. He was the most important penalty killer at the end of regulation and the end of overtime. He was able to get stops on all three shooters in the shootout. When the Devils were chasing the play in their own end in a third period where they needed to get their acts together in a one-shot game, Schneider kept making the saves to keep it a one-shot game. Stafford got his due with the first star of the game. I think Schneider was as crucial to tonight’s result.
Thanks: Shoutout to the Prudential Center scoreboard operator for making the numbers and times for penalties larger. I should have said this after the Washington loss, I know. But I noticed the change and it is a good one.
No More First: Columbus won in regulation. So by virtue of ROW, the Devils are currently second in the Metropolitan.
One Last Thought: The Devils really could have used more overtime practice. Even if most of it was 4-on-4 instead of 3-on-3, the Lightning were threatening for most of it. They were better at possessing the puck and looking for opportunities to shoot it. While the Devils did well to block lanes and force them to take bad shots, it did little good as the Devils skaters would take it up ice and throw the puck away while changing players. Combined with the power play and its arguable that the Lightning lost real opportunities to finish the game. The Devils escaped tonight. I hope the play is better next time the Devils play beyond sixty minutes.
Your Take: The Devils won in dramatic fashion in a game that had everything a national broadcast would want in a game. What is your take on tonight’s result? Who stood out to you? Who had a bad game in your eyes? What could the Devils have done better? What lessons should they learn before their next game, a road game in Ottawa on Thursday? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s win in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who followed along in the Gamethread and/or on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.