On paper, this was not looking good for Our Favorite Team. The New Jersey Devils were coming off a big 5-1 win over Washington. While they called up Cory Schneider as Mackenzie Blackwood was still out in the afternoon, the decision was made that Louis Domingue would start this game after playing last night. The Devils’ offense would see Jack Hughes return to the lineup. But it would also see Kyle Palmieri leave the lineup as he was injured in the Washington game. So Pavel Zacha joined Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt while The Big Deal was put back together with Miles Wood and Wayne Simmonds. The opponent went into Newark with ten straight wins and shut out their opponents in their last two games. On top of all of that, news got out hours before the game that Ray Shero, the man who signed, drafted, and/or acquired the majority of the roster, was fired from the GM position. Who knew how this one would go? I, for one, will tell you that I did not expect a 3-1 close win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Domingue was sensational in the net. As Tampa Bay fired a lot of high shots at him, he stopped all of the ones that were actually on frame. He was quick in the crease. He was sure-handed at freezing pucks. His playing of the puck with his stick worked out well. Even with two one-on-one situations against Nikita Kucherov and Steve Stamkos, he held his position well and made two big stops on two of the most dangerous forwards in the world. He was simply wonderful this evening against his former team. I am generally not a fan of starting the same goaltender in a back-to-back. It was clearly the right call given how well he played in the crease tonight.
While he yielded a lot of rebounds, the Devils skaters put in another strong effort to clean up those pucks. Yes, there were shifts where the Lightning pinned the Devils back for a long time. There were indeed shifts where the Devils treated the run of play like it was a penalty kill and looked all the worst for it. But the Devils cleaned up a lot of those loose pucks. The Devils were able to win plenty of battles for pucks. While not every clearing attempt went well, it was improved over Saturday’s game. They were also able to keep Tampa Bay from dominating the third period like Washington did on Saturday. Yes, the Lightning attacked more but it was not nearly as one-sided as that game.
The Devils were also able to make Curtis McElhinney, Tampa Bay’s starter in net tonight, and the Lightning defense earn their money tonight. The Devils did not appear to show any signs of being too tired in chasing pucks. They tried, I think too many times, to go for long passes to stretch the game out. But the Devils were able to win some turnovers and get the Lightning scrambling on plays. They earned four power plays; they did out-penalty the Lightning. McElhinney was beaten three times, two of the goals counted, and the Devils did try to attack late when they could. Of the two that counted, Andy Greene scored on a clean shot from the point with a great screen by Wayne Simmonds and Travis Zajac re-directed a long shot from Nikita Gusev. After multiple attempts, Miles Wood put the game away with an empty netter with a second left to play.
Most of all, the Devils did what I wanted them to do in the game preview. They put in the kind of effort tonight that they showed in Washington. They did not wilt when the Lightning went physical. They had some really poor shifts at times but they did well to not let it last for five-plus minutes at a time. They survived on the penalty kill. The power play did yield ten shots. When the Lightning pulled McElhinney for an extra skater, the Devils kept calm, won faceoffs, won pucks when needed, and did not freak out when Blake Coleman was mauled twice. All of this was supported by Domingue delighting the Rock with some really good reaction saves. (Which was crucial as Tampa Bay really controlled much of the game in 5-on-5.) It was a hard-fought win with the kind that makes you leave the arena (or leave the TV after the game) feeling pumped up about the performance. This kind of effort does not always lead to victories but it did on this weekend.
I can hardly believe it. The Devils went two-for-two in a back-to-back set against two of the best teams in the East, ending a long winning streak from the hottest team in the NHL on the second day. That is fantastic. That is fantastic. Thankfully, the games are not played on paper.
The Opposition Opinion: Justin G. has this quick recap at Raw Charge about the game from a Lightning perspective.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
The One Goal Against: Early in the second period, Tyler Johnson tried to make a move with the puck on P.K. Subban. While Johnson got around Subban, the defender did keep him to the right side. Domingue made a save. Subban took the loose puck and cleared it up the boards, where Jesper Bratt and Pavel Zacha was in the area. Bratt poked it along but he did not get enough on it and the massive Victor Hedman kept the puck in the zone. As this was happening, Andy Greene was heading up ice presumably to support a counter-attack that never formed. With Zacha not on the boards and Greene way away from the slot, Hedman fired a pass to wide open Johnson in front. While Domingue got a piece of it, he was left out to dry and that was the goal against. I really fault clearing attempt more on Bratt as if he was going to get his stick on it, then he needed to put more onto it or even try to control it. The real failure was Greene heading up ice assuming the clearance would be made. The Devils have been guilty of skaters flying out of their own end without the puck actually getting to the neutral zone in the past. Greene’s mistake just gave Hedman and Johnson a golden opportunity and they cashed in. The good news is that this did not happen so much later in the game.
The One Goal That Didn’t Count: The Devils had a 3-on-2 rush in the third period by the Zajac line. Travis Zajac’s line was the Devils’ best line in 5-on-5 tonight and in general with Gusev handling the puck with plenty of skill and confidence. Zajac left the puck for Gusev and rather than firing away, he cut to the middle, made a beautiful toe drag, and slammed the puck past a fallen McElhinney. It was a gorgeous goal to put the Devils up 3-1.
It was also wiped off the boards. Jon Cooper challenged the goal for goaltender interference. It was not a very long review, but the replay at the arena did show Blake Coleman brushing McElhinney with his back and shoulder prior to the shot. Just after that Mikhail Sergachev plowed into his own goalie. By the letter of the rule, Coleman’s contact was indeed contact before the shot and as it was perceived as having some impact on McElhinney being impeded to make a save. Toronto upheld the challenge, the Rock and a lot of Devils fans around the world were unhappy. I thought it was a very weak call as Coleman’s contact really did not make much of an impact. But the rule is the rule; technically correct is still correct. It stinks because it takes away a really pretty goal for Gusev, who was one of the Devils’ better players tonight.
The Best Devils: The Lightning controlled most of the run of play in 5-on-5 tonight. They out-attempted, out-shot, and out-chanced the Devils in every single period in 5-on-5. So few Devils looked anywhere close to good by Corsi or the expected goals model. That stated, some Devils did stand out in a good way - if not in a complete way.
First, Louis Domingue. What more can I say about him? He was fantastic this evening. I will say that Tampa Bay was both better and worse than Washington at shooting at Domingue. They were better in that they did not miss on wide open opportunities. They did not just whiff at shots or just lose them at crucial moments. They were worse in that the Lightning missed a lot of shots primarily because they kept trying to go high on him. Most of that roster is familiar with Domingue as he was with them last year. I can believe they have an idea on his strengths and weaknesses. But not only could they not beat him on high shots tonight, they were often way too high or wide to matter. The official scorer credited Tampa Bay with 27 shots and 20 missed shots. In any case, Domingue stopped all but one of the shots that were accurate and I cannot fault him that much for that one given the situation.
Second, the Zajac line had another strong performance. Zajac got a tip-in for a goal and had he had a better shot in the third period on an open chance in front within the final five minutes, he could have had two. Coleman was kept quiet from shooting the puck but his hustle was ever present, even right to the end of the game when Sergachev and Hedman mauled him on separate shifts with the empty net. Gusev was excellent on the puck. While there were a couple of times where he may have had more success with a shot than a pass, he was generally good at keeping the offense going. His handling of the puck was on point, especially prior to Zajac’s re-direction. Alas, he had a great goal that was wiped away from the record and only survives in the memories of those who saw it and accounts like this one. Still, this line did well. Especially since their most common match-up in 5-on-5 was Tampa Bay’s top line of Nikita Kucherov (who slashed Gusev in the final minute of the second period), Steve Stamkos, and Brayden Point. They did not win that matchup but they were also not demolished either.
Third, I thought Damon Severson had a really good game tonight. The man who has suffered a lot of grief for his awfully-timed mistakes and penalties played a very clean game. He did not have any game breaking turnovers. He did not make any one groan from a misplayed puck or pass. He held his zone well. Severson was the only Devil this evening to have a positive CF% (13 CF, 10 CA) and SF% (6 SF, 3 SA) when he was on the ice in 5-on-5. This was better than his partner, Sami Vatanen (12 CF, 13 CA, 6 SF, 6 SA). He was also credited for a secondary assist on Zajac’s goal, too. Sure, Andy Greene’s shot was great but he and Subban were picked apart in the run of play. As nice as some of Will Butcher’s puck movements were, the Butcher-Carrick pairing was also steamrolled. But the Vatanen-Severson pairing held up well against one of the most offensive teams in the NHL, and I think a lot of credit should go to Severson for that. It is always a good thing to see someone respond to some struggles with a good performance.
The Far from Best Devils: There were a number of Devils who did not have a good game from my standpoint.
First, I would state that the fourth line had their issues. There were a number of shifts where they at least kept Tampa Bay back for a bit on a forecheck and did not do anything wrong. However, when the Lightning could get going against Kevin Rooney, John Hayden, and Jesper Boqvist, they really got going. The fourth line did not see a shot on net by any Devil in 5-on-5 play. That is not good and not anywhere close to the perfectly acceptable performance in Washington. At least the penalties evened out. Hayden took a slashing penalty late in the second period, causing the Devils to survive another kill. But Rooney “drew” a roughing penalty in the first period after a melee caused by someone being dumped into his bench on a hit. Still, the fourth line was not good.
Second, the unit of Jack Hughes, Miles Wood, and Wayne Simmonds did not really work well either. While they helped on Greene’s goal, a lot of their offense in 5-on-5 depended on whether Miles Wood would A) get a puck to chase and B) win that chase. This trio has not really worked in the past. I was surprised they were kept together throughout most of this game. It could have been worse. At least Wood did not take any penalties, he got an empty netter, and they did not get totally wrecked for a goal against. That does not mean their out-attempted 4-8 and out-shot 2-6 performance in 5-on-5 was worthy of a lot of praise even with Greene’s goal.
Third, the pairing of Butcher-Carrick was dominated. Neither defenseman saw a shot on net in 5-on-5 play. They saw at least nine by the Lightning. The Devils coaches correctly kept them away from the likes of Kucherov, Stamkos, and Point. However, Yanni Gourde, Mitchel Stephens, and Cedric Paquette ate them up like they were an appetizer. Defensemen Eric Cernak and Hedman really enjoyed their shifts opposite to them. I liked Butcher on the power play this evening but in 5-on-5, the pairing was just pinned back over and over and over. In the second period, Gourde and Carrick had a fight and I do not know why. Gourde was already beating him up in the run of play, I guess he wanted to beat him up legitimately? At least Carrick held his ground there. Anyway, while the Greene-Subban pairing also took a lot of lumps in terms of giving up a load of attempts and shots, this pairing was even worse.
Ice Up: Gusev got hit with two shots by accident in the first period. Clearly, he was fine and turned it up as the game went on. Coleman was taken down from behind and into an empty net by Sergachev near the end of the game. On his next shift, Hedman cross-checked him down with authority. Stunningly, the refs made no call on either clear foul. (This plus Gusev’s goal going away riled up the fans. It also made Wood’s empty netter feel so good.) Either way, both men will need to ice up the bumps and bruises.
Power Play...Surprise: The drop pass has returned to the breakout. This fooled no one on Tampa Bay. Even with the Lightning leaving one side of the rink open for an entry, the Devils still had to make that back pass. And it would sometimes yield a dump-and-chase, just to add to the difficulty against one of the better PK teams in the league. It was a largely useless play; it did not need to return.
That all stated, the Devils’ second unit thrived tonight. Even with too many fakes and passes instead of taking initiative - P.K. Subban in particular was faking the shot too much - the PP units put up ten shots over four advantages. That is pretty good compared to past games this season on the power play. Subban eventually would get his shot off or pass it around, while also successfully keeping pucks in play. Butcher had a strong effort from the right circle to win pucks and keep the play moving. Simmonds was finally put back on the post to be a pivot. Jack Hughes was reading the situation. I felt this unit did a lot more than the primary unit, which clearly missed Kyle Palmieri and good zone entries.
Regarding Tomorrow’s Post: It’s about third periods. The Devils went into their seventh third period with a lead under Alain Nasreddine. They scored (an empty netter, but still a goal) and proceeded to win. The Devils have always won so far when they have out-scored their opposition in the third period. Good on them to keep it up and not blow it like they did in the last Devils-Lightning game.
One Last Thought: I appreciate seeing boxes filled with bags of non-perishable food for the Devils’ food drive this year. Not only did the team win, but plenty of people who need food to get through the day or the week or the month can get it. That is a win in general.
Your Take: The Devils beat the Tampa Bay Lightning, 3-1, and can claim to be the ones to end their epic winning streak of ten games. In a lost season, any small victories need to be appreciated. I appreciate this win. What is your take? Who impressed you the most tonight? Who do you think should have done better? What can the Devils learn from this game in preparing for their game in Toronto on Tuesday? Please leave your answers and other thoughts for tonight’s game.
And if you want to talk about Ray Shero, check out CJ’s post about the news. We will have a roundtable post up in a couple of days to go in more detail, similar to the one we did about the Hall trade.
Thanks to CJ for the post on Shero, thanks to Mike for taking care of @AAtJerseyBlog on Twitter during the game, and, thanks to everyone who commented on the site and on Twitter during the game. Thank you for reading.