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Game Preview #45: New Jersey Devils vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

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Fresh off a big 5-1 win in Washington, the New Jersey Devils return to the Rock to host a really hot Tampa Bay Lightning team. How hot? They won their last ten. This post previews the game, showing that, yes, the Lightning are dangerous again.

NHL: OCT 30 Lightning at Devils
Cirelli! Coleman! Tonight!
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This is the last home game for Our Favorite Team until the end of the month. It is only against the hottest team in the NHL right now, too. In a word: Eep.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (16-21-7) vs. the Tampa Bay Lightning (27-13-4; SBN Blog: Raw Charge)

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcasts: TV - MSG+, SUN; Digital Audio - The Devils Hockey Network

The Last Devils Game: Last night, the Devils went into the nation’s capital city to play Washington. Before the game, Jack Hughes was held out, Ben Street was added to IR, Connor Carrick drew in for Mirco Mueller, and perhaps most of all, Mackenzie Blackwood was out as well. Louis Domingue would get the start. How would it go? A lot better than what I expected! The Devils went up early, kept scoring, and never looked back. Nico Hischier demonstrated his strength as he slid a puck through Braden Holtby while Richard Panik was hooking him to open the scoring in the first period. The Devils came close to doubling their lead with chances by Jesper Boqvist, Wayne Simmonds, and Blake Coleman. They did after a power play in the second period. A shot by Will Butcher yielded a rebound that went right to Nikita Gusev. Gusev put the puck in the net to make it 2-0. Later in the period, Miles Wood did something stupid on offense and “high-sticked” Panik in the mouth for a four-minute minor. It was more of a slug to the face but whatever. The Devils went even on that shorthanded situation as Blake Coleman finished a rush up ice from Travis Zajac to put the Devils up 3-0. A netmouth scramble yielded a PPG for Jakub Vrana minutes later to make it 3-1. There would be an answer to that about four minutes later. Jesper Bratt, who returned to action that night, found Kyle Palmieri on the right side. Palmieri sent a near-perfect pass across the zone to the left circle, where Hischier hammered the puck on a one-timer that blazed past Holtby. The Devils were up 4-1 and just needed to maintain. The Caps brought everything they could in the third but between Domingue’s quick reactions, some crucial blocks by the defense, the Devils cleaning up a lot of rebounds, and the Capitals just missing on some huge chances, the lead was protected. Wood added an empty netter to make it a stunning 5-1 win. Devin recapped the game here.

The Last Lightning Game: Tampa Bay went into Philadelphia with nine straight wins. Would they make it ten? Yes. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was on point as he stopped everything the Flyers would give him. Which was not much. It was only 23 shots. The Lightning only needed one to win this one and they only got one. Patrick Maroon took advantage of a mistake by Matt Niskanen. A dump-in by Tampa Bay was lofted into Philly’s zone. Niskanen tried to use his hand to knock it away from an oncoming Maroon. He failed. Maroon took the puck and slid it past Carter Hart to make it 1-0. That was the one needed for the Lightning to win their tenth straight game. Igor Nikonov recapped the win for Raw Charge, noting that Maroon left that game due to injury.

The Last Devils-Lightning Game: The Devils hosted the Lightning on October 30. It feels like a long, long time ago. John Hynes was the Devils’ coach; Taylor Hall was in the red, white, and black; Nikita Gusev was then-deservedly scratched; and Tampa Bay was struggling to start the season. So were the Devils. This game was filled with goals. So many goals. Unfortunately for New Jersey, another blown lead marred with bad breakdowns and insufficient goaltending. The game opened with a power play goal by Kyle Palmieri. Tampa Bay answered back with a goal by Ondrej Palat. Late in the first, Alex Killorn put the visitors up 1-2. Just after six minutes into the second period, Bratt made it 2-2. But the Lightning would go back up one thanks to Brayden Point later in the second. Palmieri and Bratt responded quickly to that goal with two of their own, which put the Devils up 4-3 going into the third period. Sami Vatanen made an impressive individual move to make it 5-3 early in the third. But this insurance goal would not hold up. Anthony Cirelli scored his first of the season about a minute after that to make it 5-4. Mathieu Joseph provided an equalizer. And with a little under four minutes left, Palat seemingly scored a dagger to put the Lightning up 5-6. With Cory Schneider pulled and the extra skater on, the Devils scrambled to tie it back up. They did so thanks to Palmieri. His hat-trick took the game to overtime. It did not take long for Tyler Johnson to end the evening in favor of Tampa Bay. The Devils lost 6-7 in a game that sent the home fans filled with despair, further demoralization of any faith in Cory Schneider, and ended a really bad October for the Devils. My recap of the loss is here. Over at Raw Charge, Justin G. recapped the game with the headline that the Lightning did “almost everything wrong” but won anyway.

The Goal: Repeat last night’s effort. The Devils had their working skates on in Washington. While the Caps pinned the Devils back for the better part of the whole third period, the Devils played a legitimately good road game in the first two periods. They took the game to the Caps at time. The fourth line was not a waste; the defensemen were supported by the forwards at time and handled pucks really well; and the Devils helped out Domingue by getting and moving many rebounds quickly. The Zajac line was very good again. Hischier’s line continues to flex their talent - mostly due to Hischier. The second half of back-to-back sets are always a challenge and the opponent tonight only makes it harder. They had two shutout wins in a row amid their ongoing ten-game winning streak. This is on top of the reality that Tampa Bay is loaded with offensive talent from Steve Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov to Point and Killorn to Palat and Johnson and Hedman and Shattenkirk and Sergachev. However, the Devils were out-matched by Washington on paper, another team also loaded with players that can make it a long night against any opponent, and showed last night that they are not automatic losses. For the Devils to win tonight, it needs to start with a continuation of what they did last night. Assuming they have something left in the tank.

Eep: After running in quicksand for a few months, the Lightning have got ridiculously hot and have shot past a lot of teams to take second in the Atlantic Division. I have to give credit to the Lightning management - and ownership - for not panicking early and firing Jon Cooper or something like that. (Yes, I advocated that because, well, imagine Cooper in New Jersey. Alas.) Now they are closer to where I think most people expected them to be this season as they are a very talented team.

This is true by the evidence I have quickly put together. In 5-on-5 situations at Natural Stat Trick among all 31 NHL teams, the Lightning can boast of a top-five Corsi for percentage, a top-ten shots for percentage, the second best expected goals for percentage, the second best scoring chances for percentage, and the second best high danger scoring chances for percentage. This is an excellent team in the run of play. And with their recent run, the team’s shooting and save percentages have risen quite a bit. The Lightning have the league’s highest shooting percentage in 5-on-5 play at 9.65%. The team’s 5-on-5 save percentage is now twelfth in the league at 92.2%. What this means is that the Lightning will not only seek to control the game in 5-on-5 but they will score a lot of goals and allow a relative few of them in the process.

In terms of who will score the goals, the Lightning have options. Kucherov and Stamkos are the team’s most and second most prolific scorers, respectively. They also lead the team by a healthy margin in shots on net too. If not them, then look to Point and Killorn, who are each tied for the team lead in goals (18). Point has been a sensational forward while Killorn is having a career season. Seriously, his season high for goals is 19 and his high for points is 47. He has about 40 games to score two goals and pick up 11 points. He will do so on this team barring a major injury. If those four are somehow quiet, then one has to contend with Cirelli, Palat, Johnson, and/or Yanni Gourde. All four have done more than just chip in a few points and they give the Bolts some serious depth. The Devils will need more than the Zajac line to contend with the Lightning in match-ups. At least the Devils are at home so they have some control on who starts against who off faceoffs. But everyone is going to have to pull their weight; no one line can just falter when they do not have the puck.

Let us not forget about the defensemen who will facilitate plenty of this offense. Hedman is among the league’s best. A night after dealing with John Carlson, the Devils will have someone similar to try to contain. Somehow, I would not count on Hedman on missing wide open shots in the slot. In addition to Hedman, Kevin Shattenkirk and Mikhail Sergachev can and will take advantage of any space at the point to either keep attacks going, find teammates in good positions deeper into the zone, fire away from distance, or come in closer for more threatening offensive moves. The Devils have had issues against teams with multiple offensive defensemen as their 5-on-5 style seemingly keeps the point men open a lot. The Devils will need to keep them honest and try to account for where they are. Especially as the play shifts to one side of the zone.

So the Lightning have a lot of talented players and they are great in 5-on-5 hockey. What about special teams? The Tampa Bay Lightning is among the best in the league. Their success rate of 28.2% is the second highest in the NHL prior to today’s games per NHL.com. The power play on-ice rates at Natural Stat Trick are astoundingly good. This is not a team that you want to keep giving man advantages. The Devils will need to exercise a lot more discipline than what they have been to avoid suffering PPGAs from the likes of Stamkos, Hedman, Kucherov, and so forth. The Lightning’s penalty kill is also very good. Their success rate of 83% is the sixth best in the NHL. prior to today’s games per NHL.com. Tampa Bay’s on-ice rates in penalty kill situations are more mediocre per Natural Stat Trick. They tend to give up a lot of attempts, although they do not often go on net. Still, it is not bad enough to really be a weakness. The goalies have helped boost that success rate up a bit.

What about those goalies? Vasilevskiy has been supremely good in recent games. After all, he did just have two shutouts. Those games and recent ones on this streak boosted his save percentages to just under 92% in even strength situations per NHL.com. As he did play last night, I would imagine the Lightning will give this game to Curtis McElhinney. His even strength save percentage of 91.6% is OK. His penalty kill save percentage of 84.6% is not. I suppose if you want a point of weakness for the Devils to exploit, then there it is. Good luck A) drawing a penalty and B) running a functional power play to do that.

All together, this is an excellent hockey team that has come together to put a fantastic run of games together. They have a lot of talent and their on-ice rates suggest that their processes have worked well. The record now reflects that more accurately. And they just keep on winning against anyone who has the current misfortune to face them.

In a word: Eep.

No Devils News Until Later: The Devils did not have a morning skate so there is no real news about whether or not Louis Domingue will start this game or any update about The Big Deal, Jack Hughes. So look for that at around 4:30 - 5 PM.

Normally, starting the same goalie in a back-to-back is a bad idea. And while he played well in Washington, Domingue has not done well over his multiple appearances in New Jersey. That said, the back-up is currently Evan Cormier, who was jumping back and forth between the ECHL and AHL. I will absolutely trust Domingue playing against his former team than giving Cormier a baptism by fire in a NHL debut. Of course, if Blackwood is feeling better enough to play, then by all means, so forth big man.

Food Drive: Tonight is the second and final night of the food drive, so if you are attending the game, then please bring four (or more) non-perishable food items. This way you help people who need to eat and you get a voucher for two tickets to an upcoming game. That is a win-win regardless of what happens on the ice.

One Last Thought: Scheduling was my mistake so I apologize that this is up later than usual. Still, the Devils need to keep a mentality of “nothing to lose, everything to gain” for this whole week. After tonight, it does not get any easier. They have Toronto, Washington again, and Columbus and all of those games are on the road. Not that the Devils have a lot to play for but they will need to at least seek to make the game difficult for their opponents to at least stay competitive. At the end of the day, is that not what we all want?

Your Take: The second half of this back-to-back is harder than the first half given how Tampa Bay has been going through teams like a buzzsaw. But they play the games on ice for a reason. Maybe we will be surprised. What are your expectations going into this game? Will the Devils make this more of a game? Could they do to Tampa Bay what they did to Washington last night? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s game in the comments. Thank you for reading.