After a rollercoaster overtime win in Pittsburgh, the New Jersey Devils were set to take on a rested Tampa Bay Lightning team. For the uninitiated, the Lightning are currently the Eastern Conference leaders and are battling for the President’s Trophy. They are also the most productive team in the NHL with 265 goals. It would be reasonable to think the Devils would be fortunate to get something out of this one. Especially in starting Keith Kinkaid for a second consecutive start, after Pittsburgh threw everything and a kitchen sink at him for three periods. The Devils managed to surprise and rebuke the critics and naysayers. They beat the Lightning in regulation, holding on for a 2-1 final score.
What’s even more surprising is that the Devils put up a better overall game against Tampa Bay than they did in Pittsburgh.
I would have expected the Devils to come out flat as they played the night before and Tampa Bay did not. Instead, the Devils often pressed the issue with several rushes up ice and plenty of forechecking in the first period. While the Lightning ended up leading the period in shots, 14-11; the Devils did a great job to limit those shots to less dangerous locations. The Devils themselves did not create a lot of danger. However, they did do something better: score a goal. A long shot from an angle by Will Butcher ended up with a rebound right at the top of the crease for Nico Hischier to bang in. The Devils were up 1-0, they ended the period that way, and they gave the Lightning a lot to deal with. The Bolts were frustrated - especially Victor Hedman after his penalty call - and they were right to be. The Devils were putting up a fight and took it to them plenty of times.
What’s more is that this continued for another period. The Lightning tried to break through on some one-on-one chances and other odd man rushes. This had varying success. The few that led to an actual shot on goal was denied by Keith Kinkaid. More often than not, the Devils often made the right defensive play to snuff it out. The Devils would eventually hit back on offense and gave Andrei Vasilevskiy plenty to deal with. The Devils not only out-shot the Lighting 13-10, but they also added to their lead. Kyle Palmieri cut to the high slot, had a step on his defender, and fired against the grain to snipe one past the goalie’s right side. The Devils led 2-0 at the end of the second period and deserved that lead. They were playing a good game against one of the league’s elite teams.
Of course, all good things would come to an end and the third period took place. The first problem was that after two good starts to periods, the Lightning owned the first few minutes. They also drew a tripping call on Will Butcher and managed to not end that power play early with a penalty of their own. Instead, Mikhail Sergachev fired a long shot near the end of the advantage and Ondrej Palat piled in the rebound to make it 2-1. The Devils had something of an offensive response minutes later. But the final ten minutes of the game was mostly in Tampa Bay’s control. The ice definitely tilted against the Devils. More shifts pinning the Devils back occurred. More short holding of breaths every time the Lightning took an attempt. More anxiety built with every whistle as the time remaining felt a lot longer than a few minutes. As you may expect, the Lightning had the advantage in attempts (22-10) in the period. But credit the Devils and good fortune as the shots were a lot closer at 10-7, in favor of Tampa Bay.
Most of all, credit Keith Kinkaid. Earlier in the game, he made a great pad stop on a one-timer in the slot in the first period as well as a point-blank pad stop to deny Tyler Johnson at the right post late in the second period. Kinkaid was marvelous in dealing with the offensive pressure in the third period. Late in the game, the puck ended up on Ryan McDonagh’s stick by the right (Kinkaid’s right) post. It was a sharp angle, but he had the net - until Kinkaid dove and denied the defenseman a sure-fire equalizer. It was a massive save; it got the fans out of their seats in jubilation at the next stoppage; and it was the apex of Kinkaid’s night in net. After a super-busy night in Pittsburgh, I thought it was a bad idea to give him this start. Kinkaid proved me wrong tonight he was excellent.
From my seat, I was just hoping that save would be rewarded with a win. Of course, the Devils did not make it very easy with an unforced icing (thanks Stefan Noesen), missed tries at an empty net, an icing from a long miss at an empty net after a Tampa Bay dump-in (you have 6 skaters, why are you dumping in?), and one last try from Tampa Bay. The end of the game was welcomed with massive cheers from the fans at the Rock. As they should because not only did they win, they just beat a top-tier team, they held on in a close game, and their playoff dreams remain alive. I would like to think most fans knew that tonight was a very difficult game given the situation of the schedule, what happened in Pittsburgh, and the level of the opponent. I think they knew that pulling out two wins in this back-to-back set is a fantastic result, especially after going 4-2 on the most difficult road trip of the season. Given other games from other teams, winning this challenging game was crucial - and the Devils did it. Well done.
The Opposition Opinion: Somebody by the name loserpoints at Raw Charge has this recap, calling this a playoff preview. I can dig it.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
The Crease is Yours: Keith Kinkaid made 35 saves out of 36 shots and had no real chance on the goal against. This is arguably Kinkaid’s second best performance in the past two and a half weeks; only the shutout in L.A. was better. I appreciate how the Devils supported their goalie by not having Tampa Bay roll through them for three periods. It was a lot more supportive than what they did in Pittsburgh. But Kinkaid had plenty of tough shots from high-scoring players and he stopped them. Tampa Bay certainly has the talent and the experience in this season to make up a two-goal deficit. That didn’t happen thanks in large part to #1. He’s now the de facto starter for the time being and he has earned that role. Expect to keep seeing him get starts until he falters or gets hurt.
I did argue before this game that it would be a bad idea for Kinkaid to start this game. He proved me wrong. I still think starting goalies back-to-back as a general rule is a bad idea. But Kinkaid was exceptional tonight. I will own up to being wrong.
Hynes’ Other Bold Decision Paid Off: Nikita Kucherov is currently the league’s leading scorer and Steve Stamkos is in the top-ten in points too. With J.T. Miller centering both of them, this line from Tampa Bay figured to do a lot of damage to the Devils tonight. They did not. John Hynes made a point of it to have Travis Zajac, Stefan Noesen (re-inserted into the lineup in place of Drew Stafford), and Blake Coleman match up against them as much as possible. This worked out quite well for the Devils in 5-on-5 play.
In this situation, per Natural Stat Trick, the Devils out-attempted the Lightning 12-11 when Zajac and his line went up against Miller and his all-star wingers. Shots were even at 8-8. Chances were kept to just 3-4, favoring the Bolts. Being even or near-even in attempts, shots, and chances in a matchup against the likes of Stamkos and Kucherov is a huge win. It’s telling that in a game where most of the Lightning players were above 50% CF%, the heaviest hitters were kept below 50%. This line was kept to a combined seven shots all game (only one - just one! - for Stamkos!) in addition to no goals. The only “break through” this unit had was Kucherov splitting the D in the second period - and not making the most on his partial breakaway. In contrast, Zajac’s line combined for eight shots; four from Noesen and four from Coleman. The Zajac line did a great job against them.
Among those three, Coleman was a standout. Coleman was buzzing all over the ice in a good way. He created a partial breakaway for himself where he nearly repeated his astounding backhander from the Pittsburgh game. Stamkos went in on a check on him only to fall to the ice when Coleman stood up to the hit. Coleman’s own checks were clean and often led to good plays. Coleman finished the night with four shots on net and a positive attempt differential while facing Tampa Bay’s best forwards for most of his shifts.
The Matchups That Didn’t Work: Whereas the Devils kept Kucherov and Stamkos relatively quiet, other Lightning players brought the fire. The line centered by Alex Killorn was constantly going forward. Killorn, Anthony Cirelli, and Yanni Gourde all posted CF%s above 70%. That’s pretty bad for New Jersey. Fortunately, those massive attempt differentials did not lead to shots as the line combined for just a handful of actual shots on net for. From a territorial point of view, the Killorn line out-possessed the Pavel Zacha line and that contributed to some of the Devils’ low points in the run of play. In terms of actual results, it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. It also helped that Palmieri was able to get his great shot off against two-thirds of the line.
Brayden Point continues to irk me because the Devils should have drafted him in 2013. Alas. Maybe one day I’ll get over it. It’s hard to as Point was an early threat and ended up tied with Johnson in leading the Lightning with five shots on net. The Hischier line went up against Point and that match-up did not end so well for the Devils. Again, the Devils did limit the damage and did get a goal in his proverbial face. But Point was a problem. Ultimately a benign one.
Switching to the Devils, the Hischier line had some real struggles in getting pinned back at times. Good for Nico to score and good for Taylor Hall to get an assist to extend his current point streak. Good to see a few good chances created by Hall, especially what could have been a massive third period goal for Jesper Bratt. Unfortunately, Vasilevskiy got his pad out in time for that one. In general, I would have liked them to have been better in their own end. I’m sure they’ll be fine.
A Question: Did Patrick Maroon play in this game? I didn’t notice him doing anything of actual substance tonight.
Not a Real Power Play...: The referees tonight let a lot go. What the Devils were called on were legitimate and easy-to-call infractions. Hilariously, the Lightning cut short their first two power plays. During John Moore’s holding call, Victor Hedman held up Brian Gibbons after Gibbons blocked his shot and tried to get past him for a breakaway. Hedman fired the puck away in anger after the whistle. He was unhappy about the call. He was also lucky he did not get anything further for unsportsmanlike conduct. The funnier one came in the second period. After Gibbons went off for a hook, the Lightning took two faceoff violations. That’s right; that’s still a thing in late March. J.T. Miller went right to the box and what could have been a Lightning power play became a two minute four-on-four. The Devils did not end up with a full power play tonight. But I cannot say that the refs had it in for New Jersey or anything like that, given what they did call on Tampa Bay.
The Return of Mueller: Ben Lovejoy made two costly mistakes that led to Pittsburgh’s third goal on Friday night. As a result of that plus a not-so-good game in general, he was benched for Mirco Mueller tonight. Mueller played in his first game since February 22. It showed. Mueller had some issues on the puck in terms of handling it and protecting it. Off the puck, Mueller was not necessarily always in the right place and at the right time; but he was not heinously bad. The Lightning tried to pick on Butcher-Mueller as a pairing and succeeded to a degree. Still, not playing never gets off any rust. I think Mueller did get a good bit of it off. I wish he didn’t have to have his first game in a month against Tampa Bay of all teams. But he did and he was not a trainwreck. It remains to be seen whether his 17:06 of ice time was good enough to warrant another game over Lovejoy.
Keep Him In: As much as I hated his icing near the end of the game, Stefan Noesen put in a good, hard night’s work against Tampa Bay’s best. He also ran up four shots on net in doing so. He really should stay in the lineup over Drew Stafford.
Around the Division: The Devils won over Tampa Bay. Great! Unfortunately, Arizona blew a 2-0 lead in Florida. Florida won 4-2. That’s another ROW for them plus they remain three points behind the Devils with two games in hand. It’s kind of cruel how the Devils just picked up two ROW wins over Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay as well as go 4-2 on a supremely tough road trip and they’re just holding onto the final wild card spot. All the Devils can do is try to keep on winning and hope Florida stumbles.
Elsewhere in the division, Columbus finally lost in regulation for the first time in weeks. This is good news for the idle Pennsylvanian teams. Washington won 6-4 over Montreal as the division lead is theirs for the keeping. Our Hated Rivals and Carolina both won as the Islanders lost, so it’s clearer which team is reaching the bottom. The Devils are not in a great position to catch Philly (two points back, same GP, Philly has 2 more ROW) or Columbus (three points back, Devils have game in hand, Columbus has 2 more ROW). But it’s possible should those teams start to fail. To that end, cheer on Pittsburgh tomorrow. Of course, the biggest threat remains in Sunrise, Florida.
Two Last Thoughts: While the run of play was not in New Jersey’s favor when he was on the ice, Nico Hischier had five shots on net, including his first period goal. He is a marvel to watch at times. To think, he’s not even 20 yet. And, of course, he was at the top of the crease with defenders behind to get that goal tonight.
It’s absolutely wild knowing the Devils went 3-0 over Tampa Bay this season. Make it count in the next seven games, Devils.
Your Take: The Devils won a big game over an elite opponent with a close score. What’s your take on this win? What do you think the Devils did well in obtaining this win? What can the Devils do better before their next game against Carolina? 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.