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New Jersey Devils Playoff Narratives: What’s Real and What’s Not?

Two games into their first playoff appearance since 2012, some narratives and storylines about the New Jersey Devils have emerged in the face of their two losses to the Tampa Bay Lightning. This post looks at a number of them to determine what’s real and what’s not.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New Jersey Devils at Tampa Bay Lightning
Oh, Ben Lovejoy, you’re part of a narrative and not a good one.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The New Jersey Devils made it to the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs and now have played two games against the Tampa Bay Lightning. With the postseason comes additional attention and additional focus. With this comes more and more narratives; the talking points from broadcasters, analysts, bloggers, and the fans themselves as a result of what did or did not happen on the ice. I get it. This is the playoffs. All of the games are all Big Games. The only games left in the greatest league in the world are these kinds of games. Coverage of Game 2 was on national television, after all. However, just because a common point or some sort of storyline emerges from a game or a series, does not necessarily mean they are all that meaningful. With the New Jersey Devils down two games in the series against Tampa Bay Lightning, let’s explore some of the common ones and sort out what’s real and what just sounds good.

The Devils’ Lack of Playoff Experience is/was an Issue

In case you have not paid much attention, the New Jersey Devils have made the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Only Travis Zajac and Andy Greene remain from the 2011-12 team that went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. In comparison, the Tampa Bay Lightning - despite missing the playoffs last season - have many players who were part of the Lightning teams that made deep runs in the playoffs in 2014 (Stanley Cup Finals loss to Chicago) and 2015 (7-game conference finals loss to Pittsburgh). As the Devils got licked in the opening period in Game 1, clearly the lack of playoff experience has been a factor. Right?

Well, I’m not a believer for two reasons.

First, while the Devils have missed the playoffs in five straight years, the roster does have several players who have been in the postseason between 2013 and 2017. According to Hockey-Reference, that list would include Kyle Palmieri, Sami Vatanen, Brian Boyle, John Moore, Patrick Maroon, Michael Grabner, Ben Lovejoy, and Brian Gibbons (seriously, 8 games in 2014). That list grows by three players if you include scratches Drew Stafford, Marcus Johansson, and Eddie Lack. In other words, that’s 3/7ths of the defense, the first line right winger, and four bottom-six players with three guys in the press box who can at least share their experiences and have been in this spot before. Among the eight players with playoff experience while the Devils weren’t in it and have played in this series for New Jersey, most them have really been all that good. Vatanen scored an own goal, Lovejoy was abysmal in Game 2, John Moore is more or less not helping, Gibbons played his way out of the lineup in Game 1, Palmieri was invisible in Game 1, Boyle has been just a big body on the ice, and Grabner has been a non-factor. So much for playoff experience helping them through.

Second, the players on each side of Game 1 who made some of the biggest impacts for their respective teams were Taylor Hall and Yanni Gourde. Hall scored the Devils’ first playoff goal and created the second. The Devils had no answer for Gourde in the first period and needed a wobbling puck to prevent him from scoring in the first. He would get his goal on that early second period power play, and he helped create the back-breaker. Both are (now were) playoff newbies. That didn’t seem to impact them too much. Not as far as I could tell.

I don’t disagree that having playoff experience can help a little bit in terms of keeping one’s focus when things go awry or to not get too ahead of themselves when things go well. It is true that the refereeing is vastly different in the postseason and the pressure is higher because every game matters. However, if players without experience can make a big impact early in a series and players with recent playoff experience, namely on the Devils, can falter, then that just tells me that playoff experience is, at best, overrated.

A far simpler and more credible reason as to why the Lightning stormed the Devils throughout Game 1 and have taken control of this series is that the Lightning have been the better and more talented team. They’ve struck quickly for multiple goal leads in each game and put themselves in a position to maintain those leads even with a goal or two allowed. Even when the Devils have been able to hang with the Lightning, the Lightning have been ones breaking the Devils down for extended possession and goals that make you feel bad for the goalie. I don’t think a lack of playoff experience really speaks to the Devils’ issues.

Too Many Mistakes by the Devils Have Cost Them

One that does is this one. This is a narrative that is all too real. Here’s a quick summary of the nine goals against a goalie with respect to what went wrong:

  • GAs #1 and #2 - Nico Hischier misses an assignment on two plays; both end up with Lightning players scoring in front of Kinkaid. Mirco Mueller losing the puck behind the net before that second one also hurt big time.
  • GA #3 - Miles Wood takes a totally unneeded slashing call at the start of the second period. That leads to goal against thanks to another Mueller giveaway off a loose puck to a wide open Gourde for a goal on Kinkaid’s flank.
  • GA #4 - Patrick Maroon has a pass picked off on offense. Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn, and Gourde rush up ice. Gourde tosses the puck back to a trailing Killorn and the defense - Moore and Mueller - line up with Cirelli to totally screen Kinkaid as Killorn goes top shelf.
  • GA #5 - A lost puck at Tampa Bay’s blueline turns into Ondrej Palat dropping a puck to a streaking Brayden Point. As Palat takes a hit, Andy Greene and Damon Severson are caught on the right side so Point has a wide open lane to drive to the net and roof one over Kinkaid, who’s going down.
  • GA #6 - Lovejoy attempts to clear puck off the glass; he ends up sending it over the glass. On the resulting power play, Nikita Kucherov finds Killorn open in the slot for a re-direction.
  • GA #7 - Tyler Johnson protects a puck as he holds off pressure from Nico Hischier and Hall. The puck gets loose through Palmieri and to Point. Point drops the puck back to Ryan McDonagh as Johnson curls in the slot and the Devils try to get into any kind of defensive shape. McDonagh shoots, Johnson is open for a deflection, and its a goal.
  • GA #8 - In 4-on-4 play, Kucherov drives down the near side of the ice. He flings a puck towards the middle because he couldn’t do much else. While streaking toward his net, Sami Vatanen hits the puck towards the net and as he tries to avoid crashing into the net, he attempts to knock the puck away. Instead, he knocks the puck in past Kinkaid’s right toe.
  • GA #9 - Palmieri lips off and slashes at Victor Hedman after a whistle. The refs give him two for unsportsmanlike conduct. Kucherov takes a shot, Greene doesn’t win the rebounded puck, Kucherov tries to feed Killorn in front, Killorn can’t handle it initially as Kinkaid loses his stick, Zajac is too late to tie up Killorn as Lovejoy loses his footing, and Killorn puts home the puck he did recovered. Bad penalty and bad slot-play.

Out of all nine, at least seven of them are directly attributed to something going seriously, seriously wrong for New Jersey. Sure, some of these were fortunate for Tampa Bay, but the Devils have paid the price for their penalties, for some of their turnovers, and their poor defensive play. Tampa Bay is a really talented team; the Devils need to stop helping them out.

Devils are Lacking Speed - They Need Speed

The thinking of goes like this. The Devils have and continued to play Boyle, Maroon, Lovejoy, and others that aren’t quick and the Lightning are eating them alive out there. The Devils are used to having Miles Wood, Michael Grabner, Blake Coleman, and Taylor Hall among others just go off out there. Surely, the Devils need Jesper Bratt in addition to getting their speed going.

This is sort of real. In Game 1, it absolutely was but that was largely because there were two long stretches controlled by the Lightning. This is namely because the Lightning controlled the run of play and handled business quite well in the neutral zone and on defense. A lot of rush plays begin with a turnover or a defensive play. The Devils, like many teams, look to make a pass towards the middle of the zone from the sideboards on defense to get these started. The Lightning picked up and picked on that for about a period or so before the Devils tried to get away with it.

In Game 2, the Devils were able to get more of their speedier players in positions to use it. For example, after surviving a bad defensive shift, a Devil made a lob pass like they tend to use for Wood towards Hall. Hall turned that into a quick one-on-one opportunity with Vasilevskiy. Early in the second - before the Lovejoy penalty - Coleman led a rush with a streaking Zajac that forced Hedman to deny a potentially lethal pass. As the score put the game out of doubt, the defense was given the greenlight to rush up and Vatanen did that for a consolation goal in the second period. There were some spots of pace for the Devils.

However, the biggest issue for the lack of speed out of the team isn’t the presence of Boyle, Lovejoy, and so forth. It’s that some of the faster players have mostly stunk. Wood hasn’t able to contribute anything positive. Grabner’s claim is that he didn’t take a bad penalty like Wood. While they may be agile, the results from Moore and Mueller have not yielded much. Vatanen’s speed did create a goal but hasn’t been featured elsewhere. There’s some success in Hall being, well, Hall and Coleman and Stefan Noesen have been flying with a tough match-up. But the Devils need their other speedsters to step up and it would help greatly if they had the puck to step up with. Using the speed to backcheck after a turnover or a block is not the intended goal of having speed. Bratt may get into the lineup but given what not-much he has done in 2018, I wouldn’t hold my breath over him making a huge difference.

Devils Lost the Momentum with Lovejoy’s Penalty, Regained Some in Third Period of Game 2

Lovejoy puts a puck over the glass and that penalty call kickstarted a near-four minute scoring spree for the Lightning. The Bolts converted that power play, scored another goal over a minute after that, and Vatanen put one in his own net a little after that. In a matter of minutes, the Devils went from 1-1 to 1-4. The story is that the Devils gave up momentum. The hopeful fans for Game 3 also tack on that the Devils regained some by playing well in the third period in Game 2.

I’m not a big believer of momentum in general. It’s one of the those things that tend to be assigned to a memorable event after something happens. That makes me skeptical about whatever really changed things. In hockey, it is seemingly anything. A big hit. Taking a big hit. Scoring a goal. A goalie making a save. Killing a penalty. Taking one. Drawing one. Winning a faceoff. Not winning a faceoff. Icing the puck. Cancelling out an icing. Starting a fight. Losing a fight. Winning a fight. If anything can be a momentum changer, then what is really a momentum changer?

As with the playoff experience thing, I think the more simpler explanation is more accurate. The Tampa Bay Lightning are a really good team and have demonstrated that. Lovejoy took an avoidable penalty and one of the top power play teams in 2017-18 converted it. The Lightning have been giving the Devils problems, especially when they are able to pin them back. Coverage was lost amid players scrambling and so Johnson was able to get free for a deflection goal. In a 4-on-4 situation that started well for New Jersey included an awful break for Vatanen and the Devils. The Lightning are a high-scoring team and, well, they scored a bunch on the Devils’ errors. Lovejoy’s penalty was just a convenient and really notable error that led to the first of three goals.

Let the record show that the Devils really didn’t get going in the second period until about five minutes left. There was no penalty. There was no beef or big hit or physical act that started it. It certainly did not happen right after the Lightning made it 1-5. The Devils started executing much better on the puck and started stringing some plays together. This led to attempts. This led to shots. It culminated with Vatanen scoring a late goal to provide a faint ray of hope for the Devils.

The Devils were awful in the second period and made a bunch of errors that they paid for it. The Devils could have avoided two goals being scored against them after Lovejoy’s penalty had they played better on and off the puck. Just like they avoided giving up a bunch after Tampa Bay’s first period goal by doing so. It makes for a great story that Lovejoy flung a puck over the glass and then everything fell apart for a while afterwards. The truth is that the Devils certainly weren’t helpless after the penalty; they were just out-played.

As far as the third period goes, the Devils did play better in Game 2 in the third period. They played to the score, pulled a goal back, and had a goal disallowed. Per Natural Stat Trick, they out-performed the Lightning in 5-on-5 in everything but high-danger attempts. My only caveats are that the Devils were down three goals so it really doesn’t mean much. The Lightning didn’t have anything to sweat and they didn’t. Further, the Devils were losing going into the third period of Game 1 and while they pulled within one goal, the Lightning held them to a whopping five shots on net all period (just 2 in 5-on-5 play), they owned the run of play in 5-on-5, and the Devils were shotless in the first nine minutes of a 1-3 game. The point is that it isn’t a guarantee that the Devils will be able to tilt the ice when losing. Which is something they really should be avoiding to begin with. I understand it is a positive, but it’s not something I would necessarily tout heading into Game 3.

The Devils Need to Bench Lovejoy

This is real and quite likely. Lovejoy was awful in Game 2. He committed several icings. He took a bad clearance over the glass that broke a 1-1 tie early in the second period. He was notably out of position and lost his footing as Killorn scored his second power play goal of the game. He was literally bodied hard by J.T. Miller. While perfectly even in CF% and the Devils having decent on-ice numbers when he was out there, the veteran was contributing nothing. It is not an accident that he ended up with the lowest amount of ice time among all seven defensemen at 10:33 and only Grabner played less than him.

Lovejoy was scratched for performance purposes not that long ago. Back on March 23, Lovejoy gave up the puck at the point, rushed back during the Penguins’ counter-attack, and proceeded to screen Kinkaid as the Penguins tied up the game at the time. While Lovejoy was not picked on the most in that game (shoutout to Greene-Vatanen), that sequence combined with the fact that he did not contribute enough for the Devils led to sitting out for a few games. Going on that plus his ice time, I would be surprised if Lovejoy played in Game 3.

The only way I can see it is if the Devils go with eleven forwards and seven defensemen again. That was a defensible decision for Game 2; who wouldn’t want to give Hall extra shifts while not having to decide between Severson, Lovejoy, and Mueller - which the coaches apparently have a hard time figuring it out. It could happen again. While Steve Santini is available, he hasn’t been remotely close to the New Jersey lineup since being demoted. Otherwise, I wouldn’t expect Lovejoy in the next game.

And I don’t think that is a bad thing. Lovejoy and his lack of speed can be a problem for the quick Lightning squad when they do get going in New Jersey’s end of the rink. He hasn’t been an asset on the PK in this series. He certainly will not help out much on offense. While other defensemen have had issues (read: John Moore), Lovejoy is now seventh out of seven with that Game 2 performance.

The Devils Shouldn’t Have Rested Players for the Final Game in Washington

Now here is an interesting point. The Devils rested a bunch of their top players in Washington. The Devils lost that game decisively. As a result, the Devils ended up playing Tampa Bay in the first round. Had they won and other games ended the way they did, the Devils could have finished third and played Pittsburgh in the first round.

I don’t know if that would be necessarily better. Pittsburgh has crushed Philly in 2 out of 3 games so far. While the Devils had only one loss to the Pens, the Pens put on strong performances in that loss and the March 23 game. While their depth at forward is not as talented as Tampa Bay’s, they have more of it and it is quite dangerous given how many ways their top players can be split up. I think a match-up against Pittsburgh would go about as well as this series has went for New Jersey. If, by some stroke of a luck, the Devils drew Washington, then I don’t think that’s better either. The Caps have done quite well against the Devils all season and, as with Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, they go pretty deep in terms of how they can hurt opponents.

I can flip the script and point out, what if Boston took first over Tampa Bay? Do you really want this Devils team going against the Boston team that’s pantsing Toronto? I certainly don’t!

As for resting players, if they needed it, then they needed it. It is what it is. Some teams did it, others didn’t. Regardless, every team had a couple of days to prepare, practice, and put on tape of their opponents for review. As for the Devils, highlighting this as a problem is like spilling a milk carton a week ago. It happened. The time to move on has passed. The Devils have to deal with the current situation. Besides, this is the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. Every opponent is a quality opponent. There are no scrubs in this tourney, no matter how bad Toronto looks.

The Devils Need to Start Schneider in Game 3

This will be the last narrative/talking point I’ll react to. And it’s a tough one.

Keith Kinkaid has given up nine goals in this series already. He was pulled after the fifth one in the second period of Game 2. Cory Schneider came in and stopped everything - which was easier written than done. Schneider made a bunch of tough stops and with the Devils down in the series, perhaps he should start Game 3 since Kinkaid was beaten so much in Game 2.

I bristled a lot earlier this season with the arguments that Kinkaid needs to play ahead of Schneider. He’s getting wins. He’s making stops. That Schneider, even if the goals against weren’t his fault, isn’t making enough difficult saves. Now the skate is on the other foot. I feel especially bad for Kinkaid because the only goal I can really fault him for was the Point goal. And that was a one-on-one situation where he guessed wrong on what Point would do. The skaters in front of Kinkaid have let him down repeatedly. Kinkaid made a lot of difficult saves on the Lightning, but his spot is in doubt because he didn’t bail out his team playing badly as much as they needed.

A hypothetical question: If a goalie does make all of the saves to ensure his teammates’ mistakes do not cost them goals, do the teammates still know they shouldn’t make those mistakes?

Anyway, I will agree that Schneider’s best is better than Kinkaid’s best. While Kinkaid did really well from February 1 to the end of the season and helped the Devils into the playoffs, the Devils have to decide who will give them the best chance for winning. If Schneider is really back to form, then that would be a big help. It would behoove John Hynes to start him. Even if he’s not, what about Kinkaid having a league-low, all situations playoff save percentage of 80.4% says that he should start another game?

Having seen what has been beating Kinkaid in Games 1 and 2 makes me think that whoever starts in Game 3 is moot decision. If the defense is going to continue losing Bolts in their own end and have their zone exits denied to give them more offense, if the skaters are going to keep taking avoidable penalties, and if the forwards aren’t going to push back enough and keep the puck in such that they aren’t giving up counter-attack rushes, then it probably will not matter if Schneider, Kinkaid, or Eddie Lack starts in Game 3. The Lightning will continue to score and make the Devils’ lives more miserable if the skaters do not perform. The goalie is going to get beat if the goalie keeps being hung out to dry against one of the most potent offenses in the league.

From a what’s-real-and-what’s-not-real perspective, this is real in the sense that it is being considered at all. In previous similar goaltending questions in the past few weeks, Hynes has consistently went with Kinkaid since Schneider was pulled in the San Jose loss. Back-to-back set? Kinkaid got both games. Tough game? No question: Kinkaid in net. He certainly played well enough to justify the decisions. Schneider didn’t see the crease again until the final game of the season, after Devils clinched a playoff spot. So I’m not totally convinced that the answer won’t be Kinkaid for Game 3. But since it is a question, it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility.

Your Take

Some of these narratives and talking points are quite true and quite real. Some are not so real in my view. What is your view? What do you think is being said about the Devils in this playoff series that is real or just talk? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the stories around the Devils heading into a critical Game 3 tonight. Thank you for reading.