The Devils were met with a rude welcome to the playoffs in the first period of last night’s game in Tampa. The Lightning showed why they ended up the top seed in the Eastern Conference and overwhelmed the Devils in the first period and went up 2-0 in the opening 20 minutes. After a quick strike on a power play created by a boneheaded Miles Wood penalty in the opening moments of the second, the Devils found themselves in a 3-0 hole just 22 minutes into the game.
To their credit, the Devils absolutely did not fold. They found their footing in the second period and started to push back on the Lightning. With sustained pressure, the Devils were able to create more chances and force more mistakes by Tampa. After a turned-over gift to Taylor Hall in the slot and then a power play goal in the third by Travis Zajac (set up by, who else, Hall), the Devils found themselves right back in it at 3-2. But there’s a reason it’s not a good idea to fall behind on a team like Tampa, as they’re a team that can do damage at any moment, which they did with an Alex Killorn laser beam on the rush off a Patrick Maroon turnover at the other end (with John Moore and Mirco Mueller executing the rarely-seen self-double-screen on their own goalie). Tampa would salt it away after that with the Devils not really threatening again the rest of the way. A full recap of the game from John last night is here.
Takeaways from Game 1
There are a few takeaways from this game, with some bad (as you might expect from a 5-2 loss) but also some good.
It was pretty apparent in this game that it will take a lot for the Devils to overcome the depth advantage that Tampa has in this series. It’s not an impossible task, but the Devils will need to be sharp at all times and will probably need their goaltender to steal at least one if not two games to take this series. The Devils skaters, unfortunately, were decidedly not sharp last night. Tampa owned the run of play for much of the game, which might be expected, but the Devils certainly didn’t help things with numerous turnovers and busted assignments. The Devils checking line of Coleman-Zajac-Noesen did a solid job when called upon last night, but the Devils will need to figure out ways to generate more zone time and scoring opportunities against the deep Tampa lineup.
A Hot Goalie is Not an Invincible One
Keith Kinkaid was fantastic over the final eight weeks of the Devils’ regular season for the most part, but the playoffs are a bit of a different animal. I thought Kinkaid played mostly well last night, but there’s only so much a goalie can do if he’s hung out to dry. Tampa’s depth and early pressure seemed to discombobulate the Devils and even in spite of some nice saves early, the Devils ended up in a 3-0 hole. Then with the gap closed to 3-2, the Devils allowed an odd-man rush with a double-self-screened shot to boot that Kinkaid was understandably not able to stop. His teammates also managed to set up a beautiful back-door one timer to the wrong team on the power play goal that made it 3-0. The Devils will probably need Kinkaid to steal one for them in this series, but they’re going to at least limit Tampa’s opportunities to ones that are physically possible to stop for him to have a chance to do that.
Taylor Hall: Still Good
The Lightning did their best to swarm Taylor Hall and neutralize him when he was on the ice last night, but ended up being about as successful as, well, pretty much every other team this season at that. Hall picked off an errant Palat pass to score the Devils first goal and then had a perfect pass to set up Zajac on the second. He also led the team with 5 shots on 7 attemps on the night, and while I definitely won’t call this a dominant performance from him, he still managed to be the primary responsible party on both Devils’ tallies. The Devils will have to find a way to generate more offense beyond Hall in this series if they hope to outlast Tampa. That means not biffing chances at open nets when you are given them (stares daggers at Pavel Zacha) and finding ways to threaten consistently with other lines.
Potential Adjustments for Game 2
John has already covered this topic ad nauseam in these parts so I’ll try not to belabor the point. Basically what it comes down to is: play your best players. Even people who are nominally Severson detractors will typically concede that he’s, at the very least, one of the top four defensemen on this team. Sitting him in a playoff series because he turns the puck over sometimes is an enormous case of cutting off your nose to spite your face at this point. That is particularly true when you consider that the rest of the defense is clearly not immune to such things. The Devils need players who can match the dynamism of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and while that issue isn’t as easily solved as slotting in Severson, it certainly would help to have one of your best puck movers in the lineup.
Second and Fourth Line Shakeups
This might feel a little bit like shifting around deck chairs on the Titanic, but the fourth line got steamrolled last night and the second line was not much better, save for the beautiful Maroon pass that should have been buried by Zacha in the first period. I think I’d bring in Jesper Bratt in Game 2, slotting him in on one of those lines, with Brian Gibbons, who I thought had a rough game, potentially being cycled out. Bratt can capably take on Gibbons’ PK time if need be and he offers a little bit of a potential different skill set on that bottom line.
I’d also take a hard look at sitting down Miles Wood, who had an utterly horrid game and may have been a little too focused on trying to be a pest to engage in the actual hockey being played. The Devils were out-attempted 19-4 with Wood on the ice and out-chanced 9-0(!). Wood was the only player on either team who was not on for a single scoring chance for his team. To add to that, he also took a terrible and pointless slashing penalty to open the second period, leading to the third Tampa goal. Barring Johansson being officially being cleared to play the options are not obvious, but I’d even entertain bringing in [gulp] Drew Stafford for game two. That’s how bad a night Wood had.
So the potential second and fourth lines in this scenario might shake out as Grabner-Zacha-Maroon and Bratt-Boyle-Stafford. I’m not completely convinced on bringing Stafford in, but I’d at least slide Wood back down to the fourth line to start the game and pepper in some potential Hall double-shifts in his place with that.
Lighten Andy Greene’s Workload
Andy Greene is the captain and a leader for this team, and has been a mainstay and a good defenseman for New Jersey for years. His days of carrying an undisputed number-one defenseman’s workload are behind him, though. Hynes has leaned on the Greene-Vatanen pairing for much of this year, but with the issues that Tampa’s depth causes for the Devils, I’d be willing to explore a slightly different strategy to try to balance things out on defense. Taking for granted that Hynes does the smart thing and puts Severson back in the lineup, I’d look at splitting up that top pairing and reuniting the old Greene-Severson duo, but in something closer to a second-paring role. Who is taking that spot next to Vatanen, you ask? Well, how about that Will Butcher guy I’ve heard so much about?
I understand that Hynes has been keen to shelter Butcher as much as possible this season, and it’s certainly possible Butcher isn’r ready but I’m not sure the alternative of letting Andy Greene get steamrolled in big minutes (the team was out-attempted 25-12 and out-chanced 12-3 at 5v5 with him last night) is so great that the Devils shouldn’t be looking in other directions. The bottom line is that the Devils need a minimum of two pairings who can at least plausibly compete with Tampa’s various scoring lines and I’m not sure the current configuration gets them there. Maybe Butcher isn’t ready for the deep end, but given the task the Devils have in front of them, they may be forced to evolve on the fly. This would give them top-four that looks like this:
No one would mistake that for a world-beating top-four, but I think it gives them more of a puncher’s chance than the status quo. At the very least, Severson should be back in the top-four on Saturday.
This last adjustment might seem pretty big, and I’m not advocating panic from the Devils’ coaching staff, but they have to be willing to adjust if they hope to make Tampa sweat in this series. Hynes and crew have shown some willingness to make lineup adjustments this season when necessary, and while the Devils did stabilize at some point last night, they were still outplayed fairly convincingly and will need to find ways to counter Tampa’s depth if they can.