As I wrote one of my usually long recaps after the big Game 3 win last night, I deferred to the this evening to highlight a key lesson for Game 3. The New Jersey Devils made some notable adjustments in their 5-2 win on Monday night. The Zajac line was switched to Point’s line, which helped keep them at bay. Line changes were staggered to give Taylor Hall some different looks, which was why you saw him feed Stefan Noesen for the eventual game winner. Cory Schneider got the start and was great. However, one aspect of the Devils’ game did not go so well: the penalty kill.
Ultimately, that’s the big lesson out of Game 3 to take into Game 4. Rather than hoping that Tampa Bay’s power play will cool off, the Devils need to be more disciplined to getting into shorthanded situations as few times as possible.
I know it’s the NHL Playoffs and generally the refs are more liberal in terms of what is and is not allowed. The intensity is on another level. Tampa Bay has been aggressive at going after pucks from Game 1, and they definitely became more aggressive in terms of physical actions on Monday night. Despite the refs calling many penalties in the third period, the end of the game featured a big melee that saw five skaters on each side given misconduct penalties (and one last power play for Tampa Bay for 22 seconds). Still, while the Devils prevailed, the Lightning struck big again with two power play goals on four opportunities outside of that very late and fifth power play. Those goals put the Lightning up when they were scored, forcing the Devils to play from behind.
While it was great that the Devils kept the Lightning off the scoreboard in even strength and when Tampa had to kill a penalty, the Lightning power play continues to flex on the Devils. In Game 1, they went 1-for-1 when Mirco Mueller set up Yanni Gourde for a goal. In terms of shots, they had four on Keith Kinkaid. In Game 2, Tampa Bay went 2-for-3 with Nikita Kucherov creating PPGs for Alex Killorn. They had four shots on net as well. In Game 3, Killorn and Stamkos both converted opportunities from Kucherov while the team put up eight shots on net. Only in Game 3 did the Devils’ PK get some shorthanded offense: five shots at a goalie and an empty netter by Blake Coleman off a clear. Still, the Lightning power play has been a strength.
This is not a surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the Lightning this season. In my massive series preview, I pointed out that Tampa Bay had one of the most productive power plays in the NHL. Kucherov has all but one of the Lightning’s five power play goals. That is also expected in that he’s one of the top scorers in the whole NHL and Tampa Bay’s leader in power play assists with 28 and points with 36 in the 2017-18 season. Writing that the Devils have to stop him is like writing that the Capitals’ opponent needs to keep Ovechkin quite on power plays. I can write about it as much as I’d like, it’s still not likely going to happen.
What is surprising is that the Devils have been caught out on each of these PPGs. Mueller’s giveaway gave Gourde’s goal in Game 1. An open Kucherov found Killorn in the middle for his first in Game 2. A failure in the slot to get at a loose puck gave Killorn his second. For the first PPGA in Game 3, Kucherov and Killorn were wide open for their goal while Ben Lovejoy was out somewhere not defending. The second was helped by a missed assignment from Nico Hischier plus all four killers watching Kucherov with the puck instead of filling the giant passing lane to Tampa Bay’s other All-Star forward. It would be one thing if the Lightning were getting shots through traffic and fortunate bounces and so forth. But they’re not. Only Stamkos’ goal was possibly stoppable but even there it was a wide open shot by Steven Stamkos. The Lightning have been breaking the Devils’ triangle-plus-one formation wide open for three games now.
There have been some changes in personnel by the Devils which has impacted the PK. Mirco Mueller was scratched in Game 3. Brian Gibbons only played in Game 1. Michael Grabner was on the ice (technically) in Games 1 and 2. While the big minutes continue to taken by Travis Zajac, Coleman, Lovejoy, and Andy Greene; we’ve seen other replacements on the secondary and tertiary units. However, those moves have not led to a whole lot of improvements on the PK. Sure, there was more offense from them in Game 3, but that is not really the point of the penalty kill.
I think a lot of it comes down to execution and focus, which both have to be better for the Devils. But in terms of what the Devils can do for Game 4, they need to stop taking the obvious fouls.
I can sort-of defend Andy Greene’s slashing penalty near the end of the first period. That seemed to have stopped a potential offensive play. The others, not so much. A backchecking John Moore high-sticked Miller, which didn’t stop him from flubbing a rush opportunity and added further damage to the fact that Moore lost the puck that led to the odd man rush for Tampa Bay to begin with. Coleman definitely grabbed Miller as the Tampa Bay center was sandwiched by another Devil. That didn’t stop a move from him as it was just over the blueline on an entry. If I recall correctly, he was chasing a puck. Late in the game, Hall tripped up Point from behind at the Devils’ blueline. Again, that didn’t stop anything dangerous - he could have let him go rather than do what he was trying to do (my guess: trying to steal the puck) That’s three penalties that the Devils could have avoided and made their lives easier. (And while they didn’t score, Tampa Bay dominated a 4-on-4 situation in Game 3 when matching minors were called. May want to avoid those too.)
It’s the playoffs and fouls are going to happen. I’m not so naive to think that the Devils will have a penalty-free Game 4 (or seven power play opportunities either). Given how salty Tampa Bay got late in the game from Victor Hedman spearing Nico Hischier in the crotch (Aside: Hedman was not punished for this act) to the big melee near the end of the game, the Lightning will try to goad the Devils into dumb stuff. That’s the stuff that the Devils need to avoid. They need to resist the crowd and the urge to want to just wallop, say, Mikhail Sergachev - penalty or not. They need to avoid the retaliatory actions that tend to get called over the initial infraction that led to the beef/retaliatory action. It won’t send a message other than that the Lightning can get under the Devils’ skin. That can give Tampa Bay more power plays, which is bad news for the Devils.
To that end, the Devils would also do well to avoid the fouls that come from trying to restrain a guy that wasn’t any real threat to score or attack. The Devils at least did not commit something unforced like a clearance over the glass or a too many men on the ice call in Game 3. But the Devils will need to avoid that as well. In general, if the Devils have to take a penalty, it should be for something where they really, actually, totally had to foul. That will help minimize the number of times we have to hope the Devils PK does not get exposed or that the Lightning do not convert again.
Tampa Bay will still be a 5-on-5 threat. The match-ups have yet to really be in the Devils’ favor, although switching Zajac’s line to cover Point’s line has worked. There are still some players on the Devils’ roster that really have not made enough of an impact that requires them to stay in the lineup, like Miles Wood or Drew Stafford or, from previous games, Grabner. There’s a lot that can still go awry. But the Devils won Game 3 and are in a position to even up the series tomorrow. To help their cause, the Devils need to help themselves by keeping cool, keeping clam, and keeping Tampa Bay’s ferocious power play off the ice in Game 4 and, ideally, beyond.