The energy at the Rock ahead of tonight’s Game 4 was palpable. There was a real feeling that the New Jersey Devils could take this game and make their first round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning a best-of-three. This could have been a night to remember. The Rock was quite loud and very amped at the start. Patrick Warburton, a.k.a. Puddy, was there with his face painted and he took off his jersey to show the painted ‘D’ on his chest. “We’re the Devils, we can beat anybody,” he bellowed. However, by the end, it was quiet and it was sullen. The night became one of frustration and regret. The real result of the game was that the New Jersey Devils lost 1-3 to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The series is now, at best, three straight games of win-and-go-home for the Devils. The energy by the night’s end was understandably spent. Puddy had his shirt back on and likely wasn’t screaming one of his iconic lines from the iconic sitcom, Seinfeld.
This was very much a game for the New Jersey Devils. The Devils scored first for the first time this series. While the Tampa Bay Lightning responded with two first period goals, it was a one goal-game until Nikita Kucherov sailed in a shot from the neutral zone for an empty net goal. Opportunities? The Devils had them. After Kyle Palmieri converted on a 5-on-3 power play, the Devils had 1:50 carried over from the two-man advantage on top of four other full 5-on-4 situations. The Devils did not convert and struggled to create good scoring chances. In general, the Devils struggled to create dangerous shots for Andrei Vasilevskiy. Sure, there were, as I recall, four one-on-one situations where the goalie came up big. Definitely on Zajac during a power play, Hall’s, and Coleman’s tries. Patrick Maroon had a rare breakaway, but he didn’t really threaten to score - not that Maroon gets many breakaways to work with. Regardless, significant chances were few and far between as the Lightning clamped down on the Devils and attacked quite a lot.
Goaltender Cory Schneider had a lot to do. While his night wasn’t exactly prestine, he made 34 saves on 36 shots and neither of the two goals against were soft. Even if they were, the issue wasn’t that Schneider allowed two goals that counted; the issue was that the Devils got nothing more in the net after Palmieri’s goal and did not take advantage of situations or create enough chances to get the goal (nevermind two) they needed. The top line of Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, and Palmieri did not do well. The other lines, as usual, had flashes but nothing really sustainable. No disrespect to the player himself, but given that Damon Severson led the team with 8 out of 28 shots on net, that’s a pretty big tell about the Devils’ offensive effort overall. I understand you have to take what you’re given sometimes but that really is not ideal. The long and short of this performance is that the Devils did not do enough to get that all-important equalizer.
A lot of credit should go to Tampa Bay. While the actions of some of their players were certainly regrettable and shameful (more on that in a bit), the Lightning showed that they can control a close game in the playoffs. Their offense never really stopped producing as they out-shot the Devils 37-28 in total, specifically 12-5 and 13-10 in the second and third periods respectively. The Devils did have some good shifts here and there, but the Lightning more than kept the Devils honest. It was closer in 5-on-5 play, but the Lightning again had the superior 5-on-5 numbers per Natural Stat Trick. Tampa Bay did not score more than two in 5-on-5 play and not at all on the power play. But they kept looking for the additional goals and that undercut a Devils’ offense he Devils did have an edge in high danger scoring chance attempts, but being up 9-7 in high danger while being out-chanced overall 17-22 put a damper on that.
Speaking of damper, credit the Lightning’s play off the puck too. Sure, they took some avoidable penalties. Sure, there were some poor exits. But they made it hard for the Devils to gain entry into their end of the rink, they were stronger along the boards where the Devils like to build up play, they were on-point with their interceptions of Devils passes when they could do so, and they were more than happy to let the Devils defensemen make decisions on the puck - which often led to a block, a miss, or something that wasn’t really helpful for the Devils. The penalty kill, 5-on-3 goal allowed aside, was expected to be a weakness in this series but it was an absolute strength tonight. Of course, in the occasions where things would break down, Vasilevskiy handled his business well.
It’s easy to get caught up in the violence. Tonight’s big incident was Kucherov blindsiding Sami Vatanen with a high hit. It didn’t look like an elbow to the head, but Kucherov appeared to get a little elevation as he plowed into Vatanen. Vatanen was knocked out of the game. That certainly had some impact, and given that Kucherov received nothing from the refs for that. He would get a big hit from Brian Boyle later in the period - which kicked off a big melee that ended with Miles Wood taking an extra minor on top of Blake Coleman and Anton Stralman effectively fighting but receiving roughing minors instead. The other massive bit of violence was Alex Killorn running Ben Lovejoy into the boards from behind. Right in the numbers. Killorn was called for that, though. But the violent acts were kept in the first period and the Devils had more than two periods to respond and they were not able to do so. Overall, Tampa Bay played a strong game - regardless of how dirty you may or may not think that they are.
Leaving the Rock, I felt a kind of sadness. I know as much as anyone that the Devils already exceeded expectations just by making the playoffs. Considering what is happening in the other playoff series, the Devils are far from the putting up the worst performances (hey Philly) or getting the worst result (LA was swept and Anaheim might be). Yet, this game was possible. Game 4 was not a night where Tampa Bay steamrolled the Devils on their way to a big loss like 1-4 or 1-5 or anything like that. This could have gone the Devils way and really turned this series around. It did not. Instead, I kept wondering whether this was it. That I just attended the last Devils home game until preseason in September. That I will not see the same faces or be able to heckle or yell about hockey until the next season. That I won’t get to go to the Prudential Center until late September 2018. That my next game at the Rock will be for a season where I have no idea if they’ll be back in the postseason again or not. I don’t want that now. I want to be back in Section 1 on Monday. Call it greedy, call it wishful thinking, I don’t care. Even if it ends with a handshake line, I want one more home game. One more game at the Rock. This will mean the Devils will have to do something they have not done in this series: win in Tampa Bay. Tonight was a close game that ended in Tampa Bay’s favor due to their superior performance. They now hold a commanding three to one lead in the series. The Devils have no more margins for error. Game 4 pushed them to the brink of elimination on a night where they did not generate enough to turn the game around.
The Opposition Opinion: Over at Raw Charge, Matthew Esteves has this recap.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
Was it Really a Bad Night for Hall, Hischier, and Palmieri?: Yep. Here’s a quick breakdown:
Palmieri did score the 5-on-3 goal on a great one-timer from the Ovechkin Zone. He had only one other shot on net for the rest of the game. When he was on the ice in 5-on-5 play, the Devils were out-attempted 3-10, out-shot 3-6, and out-chanced 1-5. It was not an accident that Patrick Maroon took some shifts with Hischier and Hall in the second period. Of course, that experiment did not work either. I do feel bad for Palmieri because he appeared to have been stung pretty hard on a shot block during a third-period penalty kill. I hope he’s OK as he will be one of the forwards that needs to step up huge in Game 5.
Nico Hischier was just a mess out there. He had the better 5-on-5 numbers of the trio as the Devils were only out-attempted 8-18, out-shot 5-12, and out-chanced 4-11 when he was on the ice. Only John Moore and Severson had comparable numbers - and those two got way more ice time than usual with Vatanen knocked out of the game. Hischier was missing on passes, whiffing on shots, and just a step behind. It was a bad night for the rookie.
The biggest surprise was Hall. Hall has been the Atlas of the team. Atlas struggled hard to carry the offense. While he had the pace, he wasn’t winning pucks, he wasn’t connecting on some passes he normally does, and he wasn’t shooting a whole lot either. Sure, Hall had some positives. He drew two penalties: the trip by Cedric Paquette that led to the 5-on-3 goal and he was slashed by J.T. Miller on a breakaway attempt. Problem is that A) Hall also took two minor penalties, including one in the first minute of the game; and B) Hall’s breakaway attempt was his only shot of the game. Hall only had three attempts in all situations. Given the amount of power play time and ice time he gets, that’s really shocking. Hall has been a play driver for the Devils. So to see 5-on-5 numbers where the Devils were out-attempted 2-12, out-shot 2-7, and out-chanced 1-6 when Hall was on the ice, that’s how bad his night was in the run of play.
The Devils rely a lot on Hall for offense and the Hischier line has been used against Tampa Bay’s better players. But it did not work at all. It did not work when John Hynes tried some different combinations to “get these guys going.” They didn’t go. The fact that the other lines couldn’t step up on offense to contribute highlights the poor performance by the Hischier line. While Blake Coleman brought energy and Travis Zajac played a ton of minutes in all spots, that line did not create much outside of a few good shifts here and there. Marcus Johansson and Pavel Zacha worked well together but the finish was definitely lacking. The fourth line of Miles Wood, Brian Boyle, and Drew Stafford were not big anchors on the run of play tonight, but they did not chip in a whole bunch of offense as only Wood got a shot on net between the three of them - and he only had one. (Aside: Replace who you’d like on that fourth line, but I don’t think it’ll make a huge difference.)
Everyone - even Superstars - have bad nights and Game 4 was definitely a bad night for the Devils’ top line. I’d Palmieri to make more of an impact in Game 5 if he’s good to go. I’m hopeful Hischier figures it out and plays with much more focus and better execution. I’m confident Hall will bounce back because he’s Taylor Hall and that’s what he does.
1-3-1 System Failure: This could be the Game 4 Lesson post that I may or may not yet write. In case I don’t, here’s the summary of it.
The Devils have been running a 1-3-1 power play formation in 5-on-4 situations for several seasons now. The Devils like to set up and stay in their formation. This means the bottom one is camped out around the crease and the middle player of the three is in the slot to force the penalty killers to respect him. In theory, this can open up seams for the top one and the two wingers to move the puck as they see fit. This can work. Tonight, it did not. It failed pretty hard. Forget not scoring. The Lightning were able to limit the Devils to only six shots on net out of six total power play situations, including three straight power plays without an actual shot on net. That’s terrible.
What I noticed was that the Devils kept to their ways. The Devils skaters do not move a whole lot when they’re set up in a 1-3-1. Many times, three (or even four) skaters would be largely stationary. They did not move around enough to get Tampa Bay’s penalties killers moving themselves. They did not move around to support players in spots. Often times, the 1-3-1 would effectively isolate two skaters passing the puck to each other back and forth as they are not able to make the cross-ice pass to the other winger or feed the slot guy or the crease guy. They do not shoot the puck - or if they do, they’re usually blocked - because they do not have a shooting lane or a good angle to shoot at. While the execution could have been smarter, the Devils stuck to their game plan. I get it. It’s been multiple seasons and 86 games with this squad and this power play system. The playoffs really are not the best place to try outsomething new. But the Lightning PK kept foiling the Devils’ plans and the Devils did not have a Plan B. I can understand not scoring, but the Devils’ power play process and system failed. That sticks out largely in a bad way in a game that only needed one conversion then to tie and two to lead.
A Silver Lining: The Devils’ penalty kill had a big night. For the first time all series, the Lightning did not convert a power play. Kucherov did not have a free pass to a wide open teammate for a killer redirection or a dangerous shot. The Devils only allowed eight shots out of five situations, which is pretty good given the weapons the Lightning boast on their man advantages. The Devils were stuck in a bit for some of them (one PK had them stuck in their own end for a full minute, that was the worst of it), but they were able to get quite a few clearances. They were also able to support Schneider, as he stopped all eight shots. Ben Lovejoy (who had a better game tonight), Travis Zajac, and Andy Greene did particularly well on the penalty kill.
I Realize It, Too: It’s frustrating that on a night where the Devils’ PK takes care of business, the Devils get six power play chances including a 5-on-3, they score on that 5-on-3, and Schneider makes 34 out of 36 saves, the Devils lost the game to an offensively-potent Tampa Bay. This was a very frustrating game to watch! It is also frustrating to recap it!
The Goals That Were and Those That Were Not: Schneider was technically beaten four times tonight. J.T. Miller’s finish off a rush up ice counted. Cory Conacher’s long shot past a Lovejoy-Braydon Coburn screen got in, but the goal was removed after a successful offside challenge by the Devils. Nikita Kucherov posting up Severson and scoring on a high shot through the defenders’ legs counted. In the third period, Schneider appeared to have scrambled and froze a puck - only for it to go loose. The referee lost sight of the puck, which was a fortunate break as the puck was definitely still in play - and would have easily gone in past an unaware Schneider. Throw in some miscues behind the net at playing the puck, and one could argue it wasn’t Schneider’s best night.
I think that argument would be a poor one to make. Schneider did make quite a lot of saves. Tampa Bay had the better run of play in terms of both attempts and scoring chances in 5-on-5 play on-top of generating more shots on their power plays than the Devils. He had more to deal with than Vasilevskiy and Schneider got all but two shots with Conacher’s wiped away from the books. The goals against that counted were a rush play he wasn’t likely to stop and a turnaround shot through his defender by one of the league’s top scorers. He allowed nothing else since the Kucherov goal; the Conacher non-goal was just a bump in the road - he more than recovered. Schneider took the other shots plus some interference by Brayden Point, and put in a very good performance. More than enough for the Devils to have a chance at tying up the game. Alas, Schneider doesn’t score goals. I think we’ll see him in Game 5. Those that would not want that, well, I don’t know what to tell you.
I Hope Vatanen is OK: It was a questionable hit. I wouldn’t be opposed to supplemental discipline, but this was not as egregious as Victor Hedman spearing Hischier in the crotch (Aside: the fans booed Hedman every time he touched the puck. As he should have been. Spearing is a dangerous act and going after a young man’s crotch is just not right.) or Killorn running Lovejoy (that should be looked at). It did knock Vatanen out of this game and maybe future games. In response, the Devils tried to shuffle additional minutes to Moore-Severson, which was what it was, as well as Will Butcher. Butcher had to play a lot of defense tonight, but with five defensemen, the minutes had to be taken up by someone. All the same, expect Mirco Mueller on Saturday unless Vatanen is really, really healthy.
Eep: The Devils were fortunate in Games 1, 2, and 3 that the line of Miller, Kucherov, and Steven Stamkos were not producing a whole lot in even strength play. The power play, yes. Not at evens. This allowed the Devils to move the Zajac line to Point’s line in Game 3. Now that line scored all three goals tonight with the first two being at evens, John Hynes will have to sort out whether he switches the Zajac line back to them in Game 5. But that could re-activate the Point line as being a problem. And as the game is in Tampa Bay, Hynes will often be at the mercy of the last change anyway to make keeping the match-ups even more difficult.
In a word: eep.
One Last Thought: Seriously, one more game, Devils. I don’t know how, but please make it so in Game 5.
Your Take: The Devils lost Game 4, 1-3 and the series is now 1-3 against the Devils. The power play was frustrating. The performance was frustrating. The season is now on the brink. What happens now? Who in Game 4 impressed you? Who did not? What can the Devils do and what should they do to have a better performance in a must-win Game 5 on Saturday? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the loss in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.