For the first time since June 9, 2012, the New Jersey Devils hosted a playoff game at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. It has been nearly six long and arduous years. Two seasons of near misses before the bottom fell out in 2014-15 and the team had to endure a top-to-bottom re-build. The 2017-18 Devils were not expected to be here. They surprised many by not being a basement dweller. They were dramatic as they needed to get every win they could all the way to Game #81 to even secure a playoff spot. The Devils lost both games in Tampa Bay. While the odds of a playoff series comeback did not look good, there was absolutely no way that the Rock would not be excited for this. Excited would be an understatement for a sellout crowd of nearly all Devils fans waving red towels, chanting “Let’s go Devils” for the loudest I’ve heard in years, and were electric all night long. They were rewarded with the team’s first playoff victory of the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Devils defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning by a 5-2 final score.
What really stood out about Game 3 was that this playoff game had it all.
If you wanted close scores, you got it. The 5-2 final score was boosted by two empty net goals by the Devils. This was a 3-2 game until the final minute of regulation. The Devils have struggled to ice games with empty netters throughout this season. When Blake Coleman - who had a heart-and-soul-and-a-fire-inside performance - sent a clearance that rolled towards the net, the crowd erupted. They knew the magnitude of getting an ENG. They knew that the game was effectively closed out. Tampa Bay pulled Andrei Vasilevskiy again for an extra skater and Ben Lovejoy (yes, him) re-sealed the deal. Before the two empty netters, the Devils had a penalty to kill with a little under 2:40 left to play and the Devils were holding on to their first actual lead in this playoff series - which was earned with a little over seven minutes left in regulation. If you like your playoff games close, then you got it in Newark tonight.
If you wanted special teams play, then you got a lot of that. The referees were not afraid to call penalties - especially in the third period. The two teams combined for just over twenty minutes of power play time tonight! The Lightning went 2-for-5 over 7:10. They were annoying. Both power play goals occurred early in their periods. Both were off penalties the Devils took near the end of the prior periods so they carried over. Both were created by Nikita Kucherov. Both goal scorers - Alex Killorn and Steven Stamkos - were wide open for their shots. Both shots were incredibly difficult ones; Killorn’s re-direction above the crease was nigh-impossible to stop and while Stamkos’ shot was partially hit, it was still strong enough to get through to far post. Worse: both goals put the Lightning up in the game at the time. Killorn’s goal put them up 0-1 and Stamkos’ goal put them up 1-2. At least the Devils didn’t fail a third time late in the third period.
The Devils’ own power play received more opportunities and minutes. It ran the spectrum from “I don’t want to see this team get another power play and I’m fine with that” to “It worked! Power play forever!” The Devils went 1-for-7 with their lone conversion being a lon, high shot from Will Butcher past Patrick Maroon and Andrei Vasilevskiy during a 5-on-3 situation. A Bolt lost their stick on a forecheck but was late in getting off and so the Lightning were caught with five on the ice. The Devils made them pay and Butcher’s blast tied up the game. That was the apex for New Jersey.
Both units had good stretches and man-advantages and they each had really awful ones where they risked giving up a goal (Butcher helped save one, in fact). Special teams could have been better overall, but it did not kill the Devils tonight.
If you like violence in your playoff games, the nastiness was raised to another level. Familiarity can breed contempt and things reached a boiling point. With 22 seconds left in the whole game, the game effectively stopped with all ten skaters on the ice receiving a ten-minute misconduct penalty for the giant melee that ensued. Tampa Bay was salty beyond belief. The Devils were not going to stand down either. While both teams were throwing hits and so forth, the Lightning were notably dirty in spots. Two come to mind. First, Mikhail Sergachev elbowed Blake Coleman in the head. Was it as vicious as, say, a first line winger jumping and throwing one directly to the head? No. It was appropriately called - as were roughing minors for Pavel Zacha and Anthony Killorn in the ensuing scrum after the incident. Second, during the PK before Coleman’s goal, Victor Hedman speared Nico Hischier in the crotch and somehow got away with it. Both could be looked at for further supplemental discipline, but who knows if it’ll go that far.
One of the final images of the game was Sergachev trying to step to Brian Boyle of all people. For his safety, the refs intervened at the end to keep them separated. Boyle did the Stevens-esque finger point and let him know exactly what he thought of him. I’m sure Sergachev had not-so-nice things to say either. I’m not sure why Boyle bothered. I mean, the man is fighting and beating leukemia. Fighting and beating a little chump like Sergachev is almost a given.
If you wanted to see Superstars make Superstar plays, then Taylor Hall provided that. The Devils’ best player put up a three-point night. After hitting iron on a breakaway in the first period and having his shot turned just-aside in the second period, Hall would score a huge goal in the second period. After a Kyle Palmieri shot, the loose puck was bouncing and Hedman flung it into the slot. Hall came in and hammered the puck past Vasilevskiy to make it 1-1. Look at this, he just flew in and slammed the puck past the goalie with authority:
In the third period, Butcher’s great shot had one primary assist: a pass from Hall. The eventual game winner featured another primary assist by Hall. Hall skated in through the neutral zone, went past J.T. Miller, and found a seam to Stefan Noesen as the winger entered the right circle. Pass, slapshot, goal, and the Rock erupted as the Devils led 3-2. Hall was remarkable in how he kept trying - and succeeding - at winning pucks in the neutral zone, took pucks in himself, and sought out plays. Hall led the team with ten attempts of his own and was tied with six shots on net. Hall was a Superstar and he was a big reason why this game ended in a Devils victory.
If you wanted to see great goaltending, then you got that. While he didn’t have as much in the slot or around the crease as the Devils would have liked, Vasilevskiy did have to face 39 shots on net. He had to endure a lot of power play time and a lot of different looks from all over. The better man was Cory Schneider. John Hynes went to him to make a change and the decision paid off big time. Schneider was in control in the first period, especially when the Lightning were getting shots and the Devils struggled to find the target (also known as the first ten minutes of the game). Schneider was great in the second period. After the goal by Killorn, Schneider shrugged it off and made save after save after save as the Bolts kept coming at the Devils in waves. During a 4-on-4 situation, the Lightning treated it like a power play - only for Schneider to deny him a goal. He absolutely robbed Tyler Johnson on a backhander. He denied Kucherov and Point on the four shots they each had. He had no issue with longer blasts from Hedman or Ryan McDonagh. Schneider was caught loose and the Devils scrambled to avoid an easy chip-in for the Lightning a few times, but he managed to stay in front of the puck the whole time. The Stamkos goal could be called soft, but other than that, Schneider showed up with a great performance - his first in 2018. Schneider was a key reason why this was a win.
If you think one of the best parts of the playoffs are about how “lesser names” step up and make their marks on games, then you got that too. Marcus Johansson returned to the lineup for the first time since January 23, and he had scoring chances and generally played well. Once again, Patrick Maroon put in a hard working effort with effective screens on Vasilevskiy, nearly giving Johansson a goal with a killer backhand pass behind himself in the first, and putting up four shots himself. Blake Coleman was flying all over the ice tonight. He nearly got a shorthanded goal, though he jammed in a puck after the net went off its moorings. He was one of the few Devils that when he was on the ice, the Devils out-played the Lightning in 5-on-5 play. Not even an elbow from Sergachev could keep Coleman down. Coleman tied Hall with six shots on net tonight. His biggest was a clearance where the puck rolled towards and into an empty net to seal the deal. Stefan Noesen was even better in the run of play (so was their center Travis Zajac) and he scored one of the biggest goals in his career.
If nothing else, Noesen will always have that one-timer goal in Game 3.
If you like comebacks, then the Devils provided one. The Devils went down 0-1, but they found a way to make it 1-1. The Devils went down 1-2 early in the third. They finally converted one of their power plays to tie it up and a delayed offside helped give Hall the space to create a career-moment for Stefan Noesen, who made it 3-2. The Devils led for the first time all series with that goal. And the Devils held onto it despite not converting on power plays afterwards, Noesen not able to beat Vasilevskiy on his doorstep, and Hall taking a tripping call late. The ENGs secured the win that the Devils had to come from behind to earn.
Most of all, if you like playoff series going longer than four games, then you got it tonight. This series will not be a sweep for Tampa Bay. It will not be an easy one for the Lightning. Game 4 will not end with handshakes and rationalizations of “Well, the Devils did better than anyone expected.” Game 4 is now a game where the Devils can really turn this series around. Like Game 3, the Rock will be incredibly loud, raucous, and providing tons of energy. Every playoff game is a Big Game. Tonight ensured that there will be more of them.
This game had it all. The Rock was ecstatic by the final horn as the Devils won 5-2. I loved this victory, I loved the feeling of being in the crowd, and I hope there will be more to come very soon.
The Opposition Opinion: Matthew Esteves at Raw Charge notes how the Lightning’s undisciplined and sloppy play did them in tonight. I can’t say the Devils were much more disciplined, but they also didn’t cross lines like the Lightning did.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
The 5-on-5 Play - Whenever That Happened: Not only was there over twenty minutes of power play time between both teams, the calls ramped up as the game went on. There was even a 4-on-4 situation in the second period, which further cut into the 5-on-5 play. As a result, while the Devils were out-attempted (29-36), slightly out-shot (21-22), out-chanced (12-16), and out-high-danger-chanced (3-9) in 5-on-5 play, it doesn’t really say a lot. I mean, more than half of the Devils didn’t even have ten minutes of ice time in the most common situation of hockey. What can we really conclude from limited action?
If there are any takeaways from 5-on-5 play, the Devils really struggled after the first period to keep the Lightning away from the slot and the crease. Good on Schneider to hold steady as much as he could and the skaters fishing out pucks somehow. The Devils could have been better in those situations. They also could have been better to start the game and in the start of the second period, although they improved as the game went on. The Lightning can look at this and state, “Well, if we didn’t take so many penalties, maybe we could have controlled more of the game and maybe won it.” It’s something to keep in mind for Game 4.
It was not all bad for New Jersey. The important stat of goals was definitely in their favor. Hall and Noesen succeeded where the Lightning did not. Also helping was that the Devils did draw more power plays. Not that they took full advantage of them, but it kept Tampa Bay from flexing their muscle in even strength play.
Third Period Rising: As for the whole game, the Devils did end up really taking over in the third period. In 5-on-5 play, the Devils led 7-3 in shots and 9-3 in attempts (chances were even at 3-3). When you add in the special teams, the Devils out-attempted Tampa Bay 25-9 (!!!), out-shot them 20-8 (!!!!), and out-chanced them 9-3. The two empty netters meant they scored four in the third too. That’s an impressive statline no matter how many man advantages (four) and ENGs (two) the Devils had.
The Best Devil Skater to Not Get on the Scoresheet: Take a bow, Travis Zajac. He was a battler as he, Noesen, and Coleman took on the Brayden Point line that has given the Devils fits in Games 1 and 2. The match-up switch worked. Zajac’s line were a little better in the run of play than them. Zajac finished with the best CF% on the team, meaning that the Devils did their best in 5-on-5 play when he was out there. While the Devils could have been better on special teams, Zajac worked really hard to get many of the clearances the PK did get. Zajac was also great on faceoffs. He took a total of 33 of the team’s 55 draws and he won 21 of them. Zajac did not end up getting a goal or an assist tonight. He still put in a strong performance that dictates why he’s an all situational player and why he gets matched up against the other team’s better players.
Improved: I really liked what I saw out of Sami Vatanen and Andy Greene tonight. Whereas John Moore had his issues and Damon Severson’s passing ran the gamut of “Dude, really...” to “Dude! Really good!,” the 6-45 pairing was generally solid in the run of play. Compared to how either have been run over or scored a goal in their own net, this was a step forward.
Devils Playoff Debuts (of Sorts): I really liked what I saw out of Marcus Johansson. He was skating with pace. He was looking to make moves. He had a couple of scoring chances. I know he’s been skating and practicing away from games, but I still expected him to be rusty. I didn’t expect a lot from him. He ended up in his own end quite a bit, but he was not a bad fit on the second power play unit and when he got forward, he was useful.
I understood why Drew Stafford got a shot. Michael Grabner was just a guy on the ice. Stafford, well, he was just a guy on the ice tonight. While he got two shots on net, he really did not contribute a whole lot. At least not enough to make me think that he has to be in the line up in future games. With 4:51 of 5-on-5 ice time, it could be argued that he didn’t play nearly enough to show what he could do. But in the power play time he did get plus those few minutes, he didn’t really impress a lot. Since the Devils won, Hynes may stick with the same lineup because that is what he tends to do. But if you were to tell me that Brian Gibbons or Grabner would replace him in Game 4, or Jesper Bratt would be given shot in his spot, I wouldn’t complain. I would understand.
While he had clean-up duty in Game 2, Cory Schneider’s first start of this postseason went really well. I was afraid he was hurt in the third period amid a crazy scramble that ended with a frustrated Miller tripping up Hischier. The trainer saw him and play stopped, but Schneider stayed in net and looked no worse for wear. Schneider has more than earned another start. Onwards and upwards for #35.
Did He Bounce Back?: I have no idea what Lovejoy was doing on the Killorn PPGA. He was slow to react to some loose pucks around the net in other situations. His shooting and passing are, well, what they are. That said, Lovejoy was not horribly picked on in the run of play. Lovejoy did not take a penalty that risked the Devils paying dearly for it. Lovejoy did score an ENG, even though it was pure insurance at that point of the game. Lovejoy did not do anything as bad as John Moore, who lost the puck at the Tampa Bay blueline on an offensive rush, conceded an odd-man rush the other way, and backchecked hard to high-stick Miller as the Lightning failed to score. I wouldn’t say he had a very good game, but he was better than he was in Game 2.
that's not nice at all. pic.twitter.com/mULoebyxqx— Goalie Blinnterference (@NHLBlinn) April 17, 2018
This was not called. I’m not holding my breath for the Department of Player Safety either.
Pre-Game Ceremonies: The Devils are really about their tagline, Now We Rise. It doesn’t grab me, but whatever. Their graphic and highlight video showing their playoff history was good. Before every regular season game, a video of Ken Daneyko talking up the Devils history has been playing. They did a new one for the playoffs and Daneyko cut a money promo that further amped up the situation. It was one of the best things to come out of the Devils arena presentation this season and this comes after a season of doing a rather entertaining job of it. I really hope the Devils upload a video of it because it deserves to be shared by Devils fans all over the world.
Fact: The Devils continue to be the oldest NHL franchise to have never been swept in a playoff series. 44 series straight, if I’m not mistaken.
One Last Thought: Empty net goals are not common for this team. So here’s video of both so you can see video evidence of their occurrence.
Coleman beat Kucherov to the sideboards for the first one:
And Lovejoy was just a clearance that went the distance. The Lightning’s power play concluded so this could have been an icing. Thankfully, it was on target.
Your Take: The Devils won Game with a 5-2 final score. It was not always easy. Things can be better. But tonight was the Devils’ night. It was wonderful to experience and I can’t wait for Game 4. What did you think of tonight’s win? Were you at the Rock and, if so, what was your experience? Do you dislike the Lightning more from this game than in the prior two games? What do you think the Devils excelled at? What do you think they need to execute or perform better in Game 4 to take that game? Please leave your answers and thoughts in the comments.
Thanks to Ryan for the game preview. Thanks to Nick for transcribing my interview with Bryce Salvador earlier today. Thanks to Bryce Salvador and MSG for taking the time to answer questions about this game and this series. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.