Welcome to the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Tampa Bay Lightning were a great team during the regular season. They are the favorites in this series. Even the absolutely massive series preview at this very site showed both about the Lightning. Tonight, the Lightning showed exactly why they’re so good and so favored as the New Jersey Devils lost to them 2-5 in Game 1 of their first round series. The score was boosted by an empty net goal, but the game was decisive as the score would suggest. What follows is a summary of how the game went in order.
The Devils’ start was bad. It was not a good first period for the New Jersey Devils. Call it nerves. Credit a lack of experience. Or even blame it on just not playing well to start. The Devils were playing from behind in the run of play right away. It took them over four minutes to get a shot on Andrei Vasilevskiy. It took them nearly half of the period to have an offensive shift in Tampa Bay’s end of the rink. Even when the Devils had something resembling an offense going, Tampa Bay was quick to deny the shot, win a puck, or get a stop and turn it into offense for themselves. Right from the start of the game, Tampa Bay gave the Devils fits. They cycled well. They denied clearances and picked off several passing attempts from the sideboards towards the inside of the zone. They kept pushing. Keith Kinkaid and physics did what they could to help the Devils out. But the Lightning played like the goals would come and they eventually did.
The first two were indictments of the defensive effort. For the first one, Tyler Johnson wheeled around the corner from behind the net after Ondrej Palat sent a loose puck towards the trapezoid. Palat, meanwhile, turned towards the middle. The Devils were made to look like statues as Palat took a pass from Johnson and beat Kinkaid with a backhander in the slot. While the Devils’ offense showed up somewhat after that goal, Tampa Bay never stopped attacking. Late in the period, Johnson kept a puck in play as the Devils failed to get a zone exit. While Mirco Mueller kept that puck from Brayden Point, Palat tried to take it away. He failed, but Mueller coughed up the puck to Palat. Yep, a turnover. Palat then saw Tyler Johnson heading down the middle. Nobody noticed him, or if they did, they didn’t do anything about it. Palat sent a pass past a statue wearing Ben Lovejoy’s jersey to Johnson, and Johnson finished it. In both cases, the Devils were made to look second-rate in their own end. They were. Also on some other plays, except Kinkaid bailed them out or phsyics denied a goal for one of Tampa Bay’s best players tonight: Yanni Gourde.
The 26-year old rookie was a nightmare for the Devils all night long. He should haved scored in the first. He torched Taylor Hall in the neutral zone and effectively went in alone on Kinkaid. He beat Kinkaid but, somehow, Gourde lost the puck. Gourde had other shots on scoring chances in the period. Gourde would get his early in the second period thanks in large part to Miles Wood and Mirco Mueller.
Five seconds into the second period, Miles Wood was sent to the box for a slashing penalty. Nothing says, “Let’s get back into this one and make it a one-goal game,” like taking an unnecessary contact penalty right near the start of a period. The Devils’ penalty kill did well. Until Mikhail Sergachev sent a shot towards the net. It was deflected wide. Palat and Mueller went for the loose puck. I thought Palat kicked it across, but no. Mueller ended up knocking the puck through Palat’s skates and across the crease to a wide open Gourde on Kinkaid’s left flank. You could call it a turnover. No goalie was going to stop Gourde there. He didn’t miss. The Devils went down three goals thanks to a stupid penalty by Wood and a bad move by Mueller. The Devils were in a deep hole.
However, the 2017-18 Devils would find a way to make it interesting and if there’s hope to be had about Game 1, then it is in what happened later in the second period.
The Devils’ play turned positive about eight or so minutes into the period. Point tripped up Nico Hischier, which was called. The Devils’ power play did not score, but did they threaten to do so. The puck movement was sound. The Devils won several loose and rebounded pucks. Even the second unit was threatning on offense. Alas, Travis Zajac was denied in the slot, Stefan Noesen was denied at the door step, Hall hit a crossbar. While they made the Lightning PK look desperate, they didn’t score. But they kept on going with the attack and eventually Hall received a gift.
He wasn’t under the heaviest pressure, but Palat had the puck in his own left corner and decided to make a pass towards the middle of the zone. He could have passed it to Anton Stralman, who was close by and could handle the situation. He tried to send it to Johnson, who was in the middle. He flubbed the angle and Hall picked it off. Hall went stick side and the puck went through Vasilevskiy to make it 1-3. It was a lifeline of sorts as the Devils kept up the attack and dulled Tampa Bay’s in response. The period ended 15-7 in shots for New Jersey and there was a reason to think if the Devils could score the next goal, this game gets interesting.
Hopes of that were dashed early on in the third period as the Lightning went back to bossing the game around like it was the first period. Again, the start (really, the first nine minutes) was bad for the Devils. Whatever attempts the Devils tried to have on offense were snuffed out. The neutral zone was like an express EZ-Pass lane for the Lightning. The Lightning tried to and successfully pinned back the Devils. Kinkaid was forced to be great again and he was for the first nine minutes or so. The Devils did not register a shot on net in the first nine minutes of the period. That is pretty sad seeing as they were down 1-3 in a playoff game in the third period. But they got a break to rekindle hopes. J.T. Miller was called for slashing after a faceoff in New Jersey’s end of the rink.
The ensuing power play would be successful. Will Butcher got a shot on net, Patrick Maroon wheeled it around the corner, Kyle Palmieri sealed off a defender to allow Butcher to collect the puck. He passed it across to Hall. Hall faked a shot and then saw a brief lane to Travis Zajac in the middle. Hall sent a pass to Zajac and Zajac re-directed it in. That’s a power play goal and with 10:25 left in the third period, the Devils were down just one goal. The comeback was still alive. The Devils survived getting rolled over for nine minutes and found a way to get within one goal. An equalizer was certainly possible. The Devils could and did push for one.
Unfortunately, Tampa Bay never stopped playing either. They re-took the two-goal lead minutes later. Maroon attempted a pass from the sideboards only for it to be denied by Gourde’s skate. In other words, another turnover. The puck bounced out and Gourde began to lead a 3-on-2 rush. Anthony Cirelli charged the net and took John Moore with him. Alex Killorn trailed and took a pass from Gourde upon entering the zone. Mueller moved to the middle on one knee, Moore curled into the slot, and Cirelli was behind both. With three men screening Kinkaid, Killorn’s high shot wasn’t going to be seen. It wasn’t stopped. Bar down and in to make it 2-4 in favor of Tampa Bay. Minutes after the Devils pulled within one, the Lightning gave the Devils a backbreaker.
The remaining minutes were a lot of effort not leading to much. John Hynes pulled Keith Kinkaid with about 2:30 left in the game. Shortly after, an errant pass nearly went in New Jersey’s own net from the Tampa Bay zone. While the Devils rebounded and looked to attack, Nikita Kucherov ended up with the puck in the neutral zone. He iced the game with an empty netter. The third period ended 5-12 in shots in favor of Tampa Bay and with the final score of 2-5.
The New Jersey Devils can claim that they did compete with the Lightning and that they were not total jobbers. The Devils did not have the worst Game 1 loss in the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs (that would be the 0-7 ‘L’ the Second Rate Rivals took) or the worst Game 1 loss in this evening (Toronto lost 1-5 at Boston). The second half of the second period was easily New Jersey’s best run of the night. They did survive some real stretches of Tampa Bay territorial dominance. The Devils arguably had better special team play tonight. They pulled within a goal. These are some things to build off of and things to tout if you’re an optimist after this game.
But all of those silver linings cannot obscure the cloud that was this game. The Devils did not play nearly well enough for long enough. The Devils’ best run came when they were down three goals. The Lightning set the tempo early in the first and third periods; they successfully kept the Devils to doing a whole lot of not much for the first five to ten minutes. Even when the Devils pulled within one goal in the third, the Lightning sought to catch the Devils making a mistake, they did, and they made them pay for it. While the Devils worked to try and keep Kucherov and Steve Stamkos quiet (they sort of did), they were getting rolled by Gourde, Killorn, Palat, and Johnson - which points again to Tampa Bay’s big strength being the depth of their talent. While the total shot count was nearly even, Kinkaid had the more difficult night in net.
Playoff games by their definition are difficult games. Nearly every opponent is good. Tampa Bay is really good. There’s a lot of hockey left to play, but the main lesson out of Game 1 is that the Devils have to make plenty of adjustments for Game 2. From roster decisions to on-ice execution. A lot has to be better to tie up the series on Saturday.
The Opposition Opinion: Check out Raw Charge for a Lightning-based take on this game. They should be happy with the result and the performance by the Bolts.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
The Good of the Devils: Taylor Hall played in his first ever playoff game tonight and he made an impact. Palat gave him a gift in the second period and Hall thanked him for it by scoring the Devils’ first playoff goal in under six years. Something like that would warrant a goal breakdown, except it was really straight forward. Palat turned it over, Hall finished it. Boom. Broken down.
Hall’s primary assist for Zajac’s power play goal involved a more impressive looking play and more players performing. Nobody on the Lightning created it. It was an excellent read by the Superstar.
Hall was slow to start like the rest of the team, but he finished the night with a goal, an assist, five shots to lead the team, and twenty minutes even on the ice. While the Devils were out-attempted when he was on the ice in 5-on-5 play, the Devils did out-shoot the Bolts 8-6 at the same time. One could point a finger at Hall on the first two goals against, but he wasn’t really close enough to do anything about it. Perhaps that’s the problem, but the issues that led to each goal happened earlier on the play. Besides, at least Hall put up a goal and an assist - what in the world did, say, Mueller or Lovejoy do on the scoresheet? For the most part, I thought Hall was good tonight.
I also thought that, despite allowing four goals, Keith Kinkaid did well tonight. In the season ender against Washington, Cory Schneider gave up some goals when the Caps had free shots in the middle. Those shots are hard to stop. Kinkaid got a bunch of those and was beaten on two of them. I don’t fault him for those goals; giving anybody a chance that close is likely going to end poorly for the team that allows them. I don’t fault Kinkaid on the other two either. Gourde’s PPGA was on his flank; the only way Kinkaid would have stopped it is if Gourde blew the opportunity. Kinkaid didn’t see Killorn’s shot, which was about inch-perfect regardless. It’s easy to look at four goals against out of 32 total shots and think the goalie had a bad night. Having saw this game and seeing Kinkaid deny plenty of strong shots from Gourde (5 SOG), Killorn (3 SOG), Johnson (4 SOG), and Stamkos attempting an Ovechkin Shot, I would not agree that Kinkaid was the problem tonight.
In terms of a more statistically defendable group that had a “good night,” I have to point out the Travis Zajac line. The unit of Zajac, Stefan Noesen, and Blake Coleman did not create a lot of scoring chances. But they often moved the play in the right direction, which helped give the Devils some breathing room amid waves of offense by the Lightning. In 5-on-5 play, the Devils out-attempted the Lightning 13-4 and out-shot them 6-2 when the unit was on the ice. That’s pretty good given than the Lightning, as a team, out-attempted New Jersey 59-44 and out-shot them 27-23 in 5-on-5 play. It would have been great if Noesen, Coleman, or Zajac had better looks at goal in even strength situations, or created more chances. But by keeping Tampa Bay’s fourth line quiet and keeping the Kucherov-Stamkos-Miller line at bay for about four minutes, the line did well. Since the Devils did not have the last change, Hynes could not get the Zajac line out against Stamkos’ unit as much as he likely would have wanted. But the threesome did their job and that was good.
Lastly, special teams were good. While the PK gave up a goal, they were getting clears, they were active in their triangle-plus-one formation, and the goal was a result of a mistake by Mueller. The Devils’ power play put up seven shots in total, the second unit actually looked like a power play unit, and they scored a big third period goal to put the game in reach at the time. Not that I want to see penalty killers make errors that lead to goals against, but if the Devils can perform more like this on special teams, then the Devils may have a place where they can get an edge on Tampa Bay. I still wouldn’t want to give Tampa Bay’s potentially frightening power play easy opportunities - right, Miles Wood?
The Bad of the Devils: Miles Wood wanted to show he was active and feisty and ornery. In the run of play, he was softer than yogurt. The Lightning loved to play against him in 5-on-5 situations; the Lightning out-attempted the Devils 19-4 and out-shot them 11-3 when Wood was out there. Wood’s slashing minor was needless and ended up costing the team a big goal after finishing the first period by giving up a late goal. Wood was benched for most of the second period as a result. When he returned, he was contributing a whole lot of not much. The Devils need their depth players to perform, Wood didn’t.
Wood’s linemates for most of the night were Patrick Maroon and Pavel Zacha, and neither fared well in the run of play either. Zacha was all over the place with his “highlight” falling while attempting a shot on a what could have been a scoring play in the first period. Yes, it was an awkward position for him but Zacha could have done better. Maroon was good on the power play, but he was also the one who turned the puck over that led to Killorn’s backbreaking goal. The Zacha unit saw plenty of Killorn and Gourde in 5-on-5 play as well as Kucherov, Stamkos, and Miller. Unsurprisingly, the Devils did not do well in those matchups as those three were pinned back several times on defense. We’ve seen better from Maroon and we could see better from Zacha. It didn’t happen tonight.
Speaking of not happening: the fourth line. Brian Gibbons was picked on and picked off many times in his own end of the rink. He also added little offense. Brian Boyle was not much of a factor on offense, on defense, or even at the faceoff dot (he went 5-for-13). Michael Grabner fared a little better from a shot and attempt differential standpoint, but he didn’t do much on his own when the Devils could have used some speedy wingers to actually attack the net. While the fourth line did not cost the Devils a goal, they didn’t help turn the tide for the Devils either. Tampa Bay’s fourth line outplayed them. While they didn’t get torched by Stamkos or Kucherov, they were often stuck back in their end of the rink.
Defensively, I don’t know where to start. John Moore further proved he’s America’s answer to the question: “What would a poor man’s worse version of Marek Zidlicky look like?” Once again, Moore had issues and didn’t contribute enough to justify said issues. Lovejoy looked real bad on the Johnson goal, although he was solid afterwards. Andy Greene had some good moments but, in general, he was under siege and couldn’t get enough stops of his own. Mirco Mueller was heinous as he helped create two goals for the Lightning. Mueller and Moore ended up with the Hischier line in front of them and there were shifts where those two were given time and space to shoot. The Lightning knew it would be better to let them have a go instead of, say, Hall or Kyle Palmieri. If only the Devils had a defenseman in the lineup with 20 5-on-5 points, 9 goals, and could make a pass if he decides to pinch in or join a rush.
The Noisy: The Tampa Bay fans were given plastic clappers. Boy, did they use them. It was like Thundersticks but lighter. It felt like I was watching a Mississippi State football game, only the “CLANGA CLANGA CLANGA” was replaced with flyswatters hitting each other over and over. The Devils fans at the Rock are slated to get rally towels on Monday, so the noise can stay in Florida.
One Last Thought: One of the reasons why the Lightning are so favored is because of their depth. Kucherov had only one non-empty net shot and Stamkos only had three shots. But Tampa Bay was not hurting at all as Gourde had a massive performance, Killorn was a threat, Johnson was a threat, Cirelli was a threat, Point was a threat at times, and other players had good shifts. Even the McDonagh-Girardi pairing was actually good for Tampa Bay tonight. The point is that the Lightning can still be great without their star players being so great. That really stuck out to me tonight.
What About Personnel Changes: Oh, I have a special, separate post for that. You’ll see that soon.
Thanks to Ryan for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.