Eddie Lack was brought into the organization because Ken Appleby and Mackenzie Blackwood were getting shelled in Binghamton. As Lack’s contract was deferred money and the New Jersey Devils didn’t need Dalton Prout anyway, the trade was made. The expectation was never that Lack was going to get called up and have to face, in their house, the most productive offense in the league in the Tampa Bay Lightning. That’s exactly what happened tonight and Lack was a big reason why the Devils were able to survive the offensive onslaught of the Lightning for a 4-3 regulation win.
On paper, the Lightning are stacked with talent. Nikita Kucherov is the league’s leading scorer, well ahead of #2 (Johnny Gaudreau). Steven Stamkos is third in the NHL in scoring. 21-year old Brayden Point is a top-50 scorer and has already surpassed his rookie scoring totals in more than ten fewer games. 26-year old Yanni Gourde has broken out big time with 22 goals and 22 assists - making him the fourth Lightning player I just typed with at least 20 goals this season. Their supporting cast features a tantalizing mix of talented, speedy forwards (Tyler Johnson, Vladimir Namestnikov, Alex Killorn) and gritty veterans who do a lot of things well (Ryan Callahan, Chris Kunitz). Their defense features stud #1 man Victor Hedman, rising force Mikhail Sergachev, and excellent puck mover Anton Stralman. This is combined with the goaltending of Andrei Vasilevskiy, who entered this game with a 93.4% even strength save percentage, one of the highest in the NHL. It is no wonder this team is fighting for first in the NHL.
In tonight’s game, the Devils endured almost all of what the paper likely would suggest would happen. Eddie Lack faced 51 shots tonight. 51! 16 in the first period, 17 in the second period, and 18 in the third period. Mind you, it took a bit over five minutes into the game for Tampa Bay to get their first shot on net. When the Lightning got going, it was an often dominant shift by the home team. If you thought the shot count was high, then check out the attempts. The Lightning attempted 80 shots on net. 80! Per Natural Stat Trick, 48 of them were in 5-on-5 play - which dwarfed the Devils’ 28. The Lightning power play had six opportunities, 15 of those 51 shots on net, converted twice, and arguably should have had more despite a crazy sequence where Lack made at least two point-blank saves on his flank. Kucherov alone had eleven shots on net out of fifteen attempts. Stamkos had seven shots out of nine attempts. Point, who was a thorn in the Devils’ side all night long, had six out of ten attempts. Only two Lightning players didn’t have a single shot on net tonight: defensive defenseman Braydon Coburn (who had one attempt tipped on net) and fourth-liner Cory Conacher. The Lightning’s top players played like it, the Lightning took the Devils’ six minor penalties and made them suffer, and they bombed away all game long after the first five minutes.
And Eddie Lack was outstanding. He was amazing. Lack was absolutely impressive in his movement. He made some really tough saves on his flank and going post to post. Lack fought through traffic to get stops. He handled all situations as best as he could. Lack’s glove was fantastic as was his blocker side. Could Lack have stopped the second goal, a puck that got through him that Point jammed in? Probably. But I struggle to fault him for that amid a night where most good goalies would have been beaten way more often. Lack more than redeemed himself from that goal. Quite frankly, the Devils do not even come close to a win without Lack playing out of his mind.
Compare that with Andrei Vasilevskiy. Note that I just wrote that what happened tonight was almost what the paper would suggest would happen. The almost is Vasilevskiy. He was not that good tonight. The Devils hit him with some strong shots early on that he didn’t seem ready for. The first of Miles Wood’s six shots on net was a sharp angled shot that surprised him and the rebound nearly went in off Sergachev. A few minutes later, a shot from the sideboards by Ben Lovejoy beat him to the far post. It surprised me watching at home, the fans at the Amalie Arena, and the Tampa Bay franchise to see it. Ben Lovejoy scored a goal. In the second period, Vasilevskiy was beaten twice by two 2-on-1 rushes from the Devils - where there was no pass. Nico Hischier skated up ice with Hall and just fired on him like he was Scott Darling. Like Darling, he scored with ease. During a penalty kill, Pavel Zacha led a 2-on-1 and he beat Vasilevskiy clean. The goalie was beaten a third time in the period, but Hall hit the crossbar and the puck stayed barely out. The eventual game winner from Wood was a third shot after the goalie fought off the other two. It was a great battle and hustle from Travis Zajac and Stefan Noesen to win it, and Noesen fed Wood perfectly in the slot. That was the only non-bad goal he allowed. But part of what makes Tampa Bay so great in 2017-18 is that he’s been a wall in net. Tonight, he was soft and the Devils took advantage.
In other words: On this night, Eddie Lack, who wasn’t even in the NHL all season long, outplayed Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is a legitimate Vezina candidate.
I’m very pleased with the result. I do have plenty of concerns about the performance from New Jersey. As suggested earlier by the 51 shots against, the Devils were rather poor on defense tonight. The six power plays Tampa Bay received tonight all came from legitimate calls against the Devils. There was no soft refereeing, the Devils were just dumb and did all that to themselves. The power play was again a useless waste of time. I didn’t like how the offense died in the third period given how Tampa Bay out-shot the Devils 18-7 and had no shots on net in the final four minutes. This does not bode well for the next game, which is in less than 24 hours.
But I can’t be unhappy and I’m not. The result is too big for that. The Devils pulled out a regulation win over the top team in the league. They survived against a legitimate Stanley Cup contender on their rink despite their issues. They now have won three games in a row and scored at least four goals in each of those wins. They got a great game from their goaltender tonight, Lack. It’s a triumph.
The Opposition Opinion: Bethelhub at Raw Charge has this recap of Eddie Lack denying the Lightning.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
Seriously, Those Penalties Were Bad: What annoyed the most about the Devils’ six shorthanded situations was that all of them were bad calls to take. Blake Coleman high-sticked Conacher, which prevented nothing. Sami Vatanen held up Brayden Point, which didn’t really stop Tampa Bay’s attack as they did as they wanted during the delayed call. Wood threw a bad check into the numbers of Namestnikov’s jersey right into the corners. It was clearly boarding and clearly unnecessary as Wood was on offense at the time. Noesen got two for high-sticking from a beef with Gourde. In the third period, Kyle Palmieri tripped up Stamkos after the Devils failed to clear the puck and, later, Taylor Hall got his stick in between Alex Killorn’s legs in the neutral zone to go after a puck Hall wasn’t going to win. Five out of those six weren’t even real attempts to deny a play or an offensive move on Tampa Bay. They were bad calls to take, the Devils paid the price on two of them, and amazingly didn’t give up a PPG on Coleman’s minor despite Tampa Bay seemingly taking five attempts in the final twenty seconds.
Fire Geoff Ward, the Powerless Play Continues: The Devils mixed things up by having Sami Vatanen as the lone defender on the first unit and Will Butcher paired with Damon Severson on the second unit. The first power play of the game for New Jersey looked like one. Passes were made, entries were made, and there were even some shots. The other two were trash. The second PP of the night was particularly bad as the Devils had to hustle and rely on Lack to not give up goals on two shorthanded attacks by Tampa Bay. Adding to the frustration was that the Devils were up 1-0 for the first one and up 3-2 for the other two. The power plays could have given the Devils some real breathing room over the most potent offense in the NHL. They didn’t. The power play remains as a real weakness under Geoff Ward.
As an aside, yes, Jimmy Hayes shouldn’t be on a power play unit. I’m not sure how that means a unit of Vatanen, Hall, Palmieri, Hischier, and Jesper Bratt can fail so much as they did.
Driving Play in a Game Where it was Driven at the Team: Let’s hear it for the line of Zajac, Noesen, and Wood. They were the Devils’ most effective line tonight. I’m happy that they all hooked up for a goal. It was an important goal in the game. It was big for Wood, the one-timer was his fifth shot of the game out of a team-leading six. While the Devils were out-attempted by twenty in 5-on-5 play, these three forwards posted positive CF%s and out-shot their opposition. While their most common line match-up did score a goal, it was a perfect blind, backhand pass from Callahan to Kunitz for a perfect one-timer. Still, the Devils beat on Kunitz, Callahan, and Namestnikov in the run of play. They impressively out-attempted the Coburn and Sustr pairing 7-0, including Noesen making Sustr look weak as he set up Wood’s goal. I thought they were much more than a “third line.” Especially since Zacha’s line, uh, didn’t do so well.
While they did not play a lot in 5-on-5, Ken Daneyko had some praise on the broadcast for Butcher’s performance in his own end. The numbers at Natural Stat Trick support him. back him up. When Butcher was on the ice, the Devils tied Tampa Bay in attempted 9-9 and out-shot them 6-5. That’s the best out of any defenseman tonight. Butcher was good at getting on his man and knowing where he needed to be. Lovejoy was a fine partner for him as well on top of scoring a goal out of seemingly nowhere in the first period.
Getting Beaten On: The bottom six. Man, they were crushed. Drew Stafford’s one shining moment was picking off a D-to-D pass for a breakaway. Other than that, he was picked on in 5-on-5 play. Jimmy Hayes and Nick Lappin were absolutely steamrolled; the Devils conceded over ten attempts on net when they were out there in 5-on-5 play and only generated one in response. Blake Coleman was heavily out-attempted, although shots were surprisingly low (3-3). The worst of it is arguably Zacha. I loved his shorthanded goal. I mean, check it out and marvel how Vatanen caught the Lightning out of position:
But in 5-on-5 play, when Zacha was on the ice, the Devils were out-shot 1-13 and out-attempted 3-18. Only defensemen, who played much more than Zacha in 5-on-5 saw more action against and even they saw something resembling offense from the Devils. It’s not all on Zacha but he was struggling to get pucks out like seemingly every other Devil. Goodness, it was not a good night for him and his line aside from the goal.
The other two pairings just shared the damage against them. I think Severson was the best of the other four, but that’s not saying much.
Streaks: Nico Hischier’s lovely second period goal now means he has goals in his each of his last three games. Hall provided the primary assist for that one, so his point-streak is now 18 games long. If I’m not mistaken, that’s a franchise record. Go Hall (and don’t trip dudes in the neutral zone in a one-goal game on the road in the third period)!
Around the Division: The Devils’ win keeps them tied with Philly in points. They’re still behind them due to ROW, though. Tonight, Chicago routed Washington which really doesn’t impact the Devils too much at this point. Pittsburgh beat on Toronto in regulation to stay four points ahead of both Philly and New Jersey. Our Hated Rivals lost big time to Ottawa, which helps in that they may become a spoiler rather than a contender soon. The Devils’ game in Carolina tomorrow is another four-point swing. With tonight’s win, the Canes would just pull closer to the Devils as opposed to being right behind them or surpassing them. Getting wins is always better than not getting them even with a game right on the next day against a rested opponent. So it goes with the schedule.
Two Last Thoughts: 1. It’s not true that the Devils always make backups and third-string goalies look good. It is still fun that the Devils were on the right side of that exchange tonight. And it led to Vegas overtaking them for first in the NHL. Too bad, so sad, Tampa Bay. This was Eddie Lack’s night to shine.
2. Ben Lovejoy’s goal was not wasted in this effort. Given how rare they are, I enjoy that.
Your Take: The Devils won 4-3 in regulation over the now-formerly-first-in-the-league Lightning. The next game is tomorrow and in under 24 hours. Keith Kinkaid has a heck of an act to follow up. The Devils have to recharge, refocus, and re-adjust their concepts of discipline. In the meantime, what did you think of tonight’s win? Who was the best Devil not named Lack tonight? Which of the four goals was your favorite? What do you even do with the power play tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this win in the comments.
Thanks to Devin for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.