Originally, I thought the main lesson from the New Jersey Devils losing Game 2 to the Tampa Bay Lightning, 3-5, was a desperate need to avoid unforced errors. Believe me, the Devils paid the price in Game 2 for them enough to know they need to better. Ben Lovejoy cannot be clearing anything wonky high towards the glass, lest it go over it. Kyle Palmieri cannot lip off and slash Victor Hedman after a whistle around the refs for a needless penalty. Those four led to four second period goals that effectively won the game for Tampa Bay. All good lessons to learn.
Upon thinking about it over night, I realized that there is a larger lesson from this game. It was just as much of an issue in Game 1, which helped contribute to that loss as well. The fact is that that the Tampa Bay dug a big hole for the Devils on the scoreboard in each game and the hole has been too big for the Devils to climb out of. If the Devils want to turn this series around, they need to do a better job at not getting buried in big deficits.
The New Jersey Devils are no strangers to trailing in games. Certainly not in this past season. According to Natural Stat Trick, the New Jersey Devils have trailed in 1,624:54 in all situations in this past season. That’s the 13th most in the NHL - and the second most among teams who qualified for the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Devils do not suddenly become all-world players when losing, but like most NHL teams, the Devils tend to attack more, shoot more, and control the run of play more when trailing.
As an aside, the Devils spent 1,770:15 in tied score situations last season, which was the 20th most in the NHL; and the Devils led in 1,594:40 - which ranked 16th in the NHL. Again, the Devils are used to playing from behind.
However, these are not just one-goal deficits where one good play or stroke of luck ties it up. In these two playoff games, the Devils have trailed as many as three goals in Game 1 and as many as four goals in Game 2. We’ve seen the Devils have some great runs of play in those games after the team was down by multiple goals. The Devils looked their best in Game 1 in the second half of the second period where they were down by three and pulled within two goals. In Game 2, the Devils thrived in the last five minutes or so of the second period and the second half of the third period. The Devils reduced the deficit in both cases: Vatanen ripped a wrister near the end of the second and Blake Coleman slammed a one-timer from the high slot with eight minutes left to play. But the deficit was still too large to make up. The Devils needed a total collapse from Tampa Bay and the team that finished first in the Eastern Conference did not do that lot, showed few signs that they were, played such that they weren’t going to, and so they didn’t.
As far as the deficits themselves, they were created relatively quickly within the game.
In Game 1, Tampa Bay went up by two in the first period with the first goal occurring with five minutes left in the period the second goal happening with 29 seconds left in the period. Thanks to Miles Wood taking a stupid slashing penalty five seconds in to the second period, got a gift from Mirco Mueller to make it a three goal lead not even two minuted into the second. Even with an intermission in between, it took the Lightning less than seven minutes of game time to score three goals.
In Game 2, after a first period where the Devils responded well to giving up the first goal (Nico Hischier thanks you Anton Stralman), the Lightning struck again for three quick scores. At 2:44 into the second period, Lovejoy cleared the puck over the glass. At 3:14 - or thirty seconds into the resulting power play, Alex Killorn re-directed a Nikita Kucherov pass into the net. A little over a minute after that, at 4:36, confusion by the Devils defense resulted in Ryan McDonagh firing a long slapshot and an open Tyler Johnson re-directing the puck to make it 1-3. Less than two minutes later, at 6:01, Sami Vatanen puts in the puck in own net in 4-on-4 play to make it 1-4. Again, that’s three goals scored in under three minutes. The Devils helped out Tampa Bay what with Lovejoy’s penalty and Vatanen’s error, but the point remains - the Lightning scored, then scored, and scored again before New Jersey had something going themselves. And even as the Devils were trying to get back into it, Tampa Bay made the Devils pay for Palmieri’s unsportsmanlike conduct to make it a four-goal second period and put the game really out of reach at 1-5. So the Lightning got their insurance goal well before they needed it.
As a second quick aside: poor Keith Kinkaid. The goals weren’t even his fault. The guys in front of him have let him down and let Tampa Bay have some grade-A chances in front. Now the talk is that he should sit for results that weren’t even on him. I feel like we’ve had this situation earlier in this season. Regardless: it’s rough being a goalie.
Exacerbating the issue is that while the Devils tend to attack more like most other NHL teams when trailing, that has not always been the case. For example, amid those surges in scoring, the Devils didn’t come out and bring the game to Tampa Bay until well after the dust settled from all of the scoring. For another, even though the Devils pulled within one goal, the Devils’ third period in Game 1 yielded all of five shooting attempts in 5-on-5 play and three shots. The Lightning demonstrated that they can close out of a lead, keep a down opponent more than honest with their offense, and tack on an insurance goal - which they did in Game 1. In Game 2, yeah, the Devils played better but the point remains: they were down three and that was just too much of a hole to climb out of. Not with this Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has shown up well in this series, and not with this Lightning team, who are who we thought they are.
So what can the Devils do in Game 3 to avoid repeating this fate where they’ll be down by three or more goals and that would effectively seal the game for Tampa Bay?
For starters, they need to stop making those unforced errors I mentioned way at the beginning. Those who like to play the What-If game sure would have a fun time thinking about how Game 2 would have went if Lovejoy didn’t clear the puck over the glass, Vatanen didn’t beat Keith Kinkaid at his right toe, and/or Palmieri kept his mouth shut. Whereas in Game 1, the missed assignments and a bad giveaway yielded the big deficit; these errors contributed to more of them. I’d like to think the defeat they took in Game 2 would have them learn their lesson. We’ll see.
But if they really want an idea on what to do, then they should watch the tape of the first period of Game 2. There, a mistake cost the Devils dearly. Andy Greene and Damon Severson was confused and Kinkaid went low as Brayden Point aimed - and shot - top-shelf. Did the Devils respond by compounding their mistakes? Did they go out and get pinned back repeatedly or fail to make an exit, allowing a potential play such as a long shot being taken in hopes for a deflection (e.g. McDonagh’s shot that was re-directed in by Johnson)? No. They went back to work, they got an opportunity, and thanks to a giveaway of the Lightning, Nico Hischier provided an equalizer. While the Lightning had some good shifts to close out that first period, the Devils generated some of their own and it ended up being a fairly even period. While Tampa Bay isn’t always going to have a giveaway to the high slot and icings rarely lead to offense, the Devils didn’t let the Lightning just run wild and hand them opportunities in the process.
We’ve seen in Games 1 and 2 and in previous games in this season that the Devils can come back from a one or two goal deficit. That’s the main lesson in other words. New Jersey needs to limit the damage. They need to keep the hole from being dug too deep. The Devils cannot afford to play from three or more from behind and hope to tie it up. Making it a game while losing will often lead to a loss and it has in the previous two games.
Ideally, I’d like to see the Devils do something different and be leading on the scoreboard at some point in this series. That is easier said than done. Tampa Bay has clearly shown the world that they are a very talented team and very good in all three zones of play. So it is imperative that the Devils find the mental strength and make the plays they need to make to keep Tampa Bay from doing more than just going up one, if/when they do go up in a game. Accomplishing that will be a big step forward after the first two games in this series.
The time to do this is tomorrow. Like many of the readers, I want the Devils to prevail in Game 3. While not technically a must-win, it is practically a must for the Devils to turn this around. The Devils have come back from exactly one two-game deficit in a first round playoff series in their history: the 1994 first round against Boston. While we could see a goalie change like back then, I think this Tampa Bay team is better than that Boston team. We’ll see. Still, if the Devils want to just avoid the sweep, then I think it is imperative that the Devils do a better job limiting the damage and avoid a relatively quick three goals against in Game 3.