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Let’s Re-Do the 2019-20 New Jersey Devils in EHM Part 11: Tampa Bay in the ECF

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In the eleventh part of the Let’s Re-Do the 2019-20 New Jersey Devils season in Eastside Hockey Manager series, the Devils take on the mighty Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals. This post goes over the series, game-by-game, and what will happen next.

Pictured: One of the four goals Taylor Hall scored in the series against Tampa Bay.
Pictured: One of the four goals Taylor Hall scored in the series against Tampa Bay.

On Sunday, Part 8 of the Let’s Re-Do the 2019-20 New Jersey Devils in Eastside Hockey Manager series showed how the Devils clinched a playoff spot and finished second in the Metropolitan Division. On Tuesday, Part 9 showed them dumping Our Hated Rivals in five games. On Thursday, Part 10 detailed how the Devils dusted a Pittsburgh team that had their number in the season. In this post, the Devils are in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning. In the EHM season, the Devils beat them in all three games: two in overtime and one enjoyable 6-0 beatdown. However, Tampa Bay entered the Eastern Conference Finals with a perfect 8-0 record. They crushed Buffalo in the first round. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy shut out Montreal in three of their four games in the second round, all in tight games. Would the Devils be able to score on him? And even if they can, can they repel an offense featuring Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Braden Point, Tyler Johnson, and Yanni Gourde? We will find out in Part 11, which follows.

GM Sherman Abrams and I thank all of the People Who Matter who have followed this series so far.

Eastern Conference Finals, Game 1 - Home is where the Series Starts

The Devils finished ahead of the Lightning in the standings, so they would have home ice in this series. The Rock was about 95% full of fans clad in Devils gear. Newark was getting into the team spirit, as were many throughout the state. There were plenty of cheers as the Devils took to the ice and as the game began. And again when Ryan McDonagh took a roughing call 34 seconds into the game. The Devils did not punish this mistake. They did punish Mikhail Sergachev for a high-sticking call a few minutes after that first penalty. The Pride of Montvale, New Jersey finished a feed from Jack Hughes to beat Vasilevskiy for a PPG. Kyle Palmieri was the first to score on the goalie since he started Game 3 in Montreal. The Devils were up 1-0 after one.

The Lightning were going to have a response and they did. In the second period, Palmieri took a roughing call. Seconds later, Nikita Kucherov finished a play from Stamkos and Victor Hedman to tie up the game. Late in the second period, Nathan Bastian slammed in a shot from the high slot through traffic to put the Devils up 2-1. Unfortunately, Travis Zajac followed up that goal by taking a cross-checking penalty on the next shift. This gave Tampa Bay a late power play. Sergachev missed on a shot from the left circle, but Kucherov recovered the puck, went around the post, and roofed it past Mackenzie Blackwood to tie it up 2-2 before intermission. The tension mounted among the fans. It continued for about eight-and-half minutes into the third.

This made the reaction to what happened then even larger. Blake Coleman tossed a puck to Jesper Boqvist - in for Pavel Zacha - in the neutral zone, who dumped it in for Bastian. Bastian retrived the puck, saw Coleman open on his wing, and passed it across. Coleman got around McDonagh and fired in a goal before Vasilevskiy could get over. 3-2. The Devils’ offense attacked but the Lightning blocked a lot of shots and responded with plenty of shots on target themselves. They pulled the goalie late in the hopes for a late equalizer. Derek Forbort found Phil Kessel open on his wing, who took the puck out of the zone and sent it across the neutral zone to Nikita Gusev. Gusev sailed in the empty net goal to secure the win. Bizarrely, the Lightning pulled the goalie on the next shift just as Tampa Bay was about to gain the zone. They did not gain it with control. Forbort took the loose puck, sent it out to Kessel, who passed it up again to Gusev for another ENG by the Goose. The Devils fans loved it. The Devils won Game 1, 5-2.

ECFs, Game 1 - The Devils pulled away in the third period in a closer game than the score suggests.
ECFs, Game 1 - The Devils pulled away in the third period in a closer game than the score suggests.

Note the shot count. The Lightning were only out-shot by 3. Sure, they blocked 14 additional shots, but this points to how the Lightning could “handle” the Devils offensive rushes better than the Devils’ previous two playoff opponents. The Devils did dominate along the boards, but not so much at the dots or at moving the puck. Coleman’s goal was obviously massive.

ECFs, Game 1 - Penalties were in NJ’s favor, but they paid for it.
ECFs, Game 1 - Penalties were in NJ’s favor, but they paid for it.

The Devils were the more disciplined team. Yet, Tampa Bay converted their two power plays. The Devils let the Lightning off the hook in this aspect. It is surprising to see that Stamkos took two calls given how important he is for Tampa Bay.

ECFs, Game 1 - Player Ratings
ECFs, Game 1 - Player Ratings

This was not so much a bad game for the Lightning. Vasilevskiy was good, but the only standouts were Kucherov and Johnson. They were shorthanded in the game as Yanni Gourde left the game early with a thigh injury - which would effectively take him out of thi series. Game 1 featured a better performance by the Devils. Only Zajac put up a six. Everyone was a seven or better, with several nines and two tens. Gusev was playing awesome and his goals were just the cherry on top. Coleman scored the tie-breaking goal and he was the best among a really good performance by the third line. Forbort and Damon Severson played very well.

Eastern Conference Finals, Game 2 - When it Rains...

Abrams decided to keep the same lineup for Game 2 since they played well in Game 1. The start was auspicious. The Devils had a 5-on-3 for two minutes just over a minute into regulation. They did not score. The Lightning were shotless for the first five minutes. Then, the Devils iced the puck and after the Lightning won the draw, Kessel went up to Luke Schenn and hooked him. Stamkos won the draw, McDonagh took his time to find Stamkos in the middle, he tossed it off to Kucherov, and he scored. 0-1. On the very next shift, the Devils were caught unaware as both Cedric Paquette and Cory Conacher ended up in front of Blackwood with the puck. Blackwood denied Paquette but Conacher had him beat dead to rights on a rebound and it was 0-2. Later in the first, the Lightning stopped a Devils’ attack and broke out. Alex Killorn found Pontus Åberg - Gourde’s replacement - in the middle. The fill-in lit beat Blackwood straight up to make it 0-3. This was Tampa Bay’s fifth shot on net of the game. Hynes pulled Blackwood for Jake Oettinger. The fans were absolutely shocked at how the Lightning were up by three in the first period.

Hope was briefly restored in the second period. Miles Wood stayed on as the fourths came on for the first line. Palmieri found Hughes in the slot. The Big Deal dropped it back to Wood, who fired a shot Vasilevskiy did not see to make it 1-3. It was a start. Or at least, it could have been a start. Minutes later, the Devils iced the puck. Stamkos won the draw back to Schenn. He passed it back to Stamkos in the circle, who fired a shot past Oettinger to make it 1-4. The fans that were jubiliant and excited to start this game were hushed. It was not over but few expected a comeback.

Early in the third period, Phil Kessel turned a few more of those fans into believers when he put home a loose puck from a Sergachev shot block on Gusev in the slot. It was 2-4. But that would be the closest New Jersey would get in the third. They got into penalty trouble. Vatanen, who did not get called a lot in this postseason, took a cross-checking call. McDonagh quickly punished him for the foul. Late in the second, Severson took a hooking call. Johnson finished the play for another PPG. Bastian took a cross-checking call in the final minute, but Tampa Bay ran out of time before scoring a third power play goal in the third. The fans were not so much mad but just stunned at how this game got away from the Devils early and it did not let up. Concerns and rants about who should start Game 3 commenced online during the third period. The Devils lost Game 2, 2-6.

ECFs, Game 2 - Tampa Bay went up early and never lost the lead.
ECFs, Game 2 - Tampa Bay went up early and never lost the lead.

The Devils were dug in deep early on and never could come close to climbing out. After their two scores, it was a matter of minutes before Tampa Bay restored the lead. What is also notable was how the shot attempts were more event and New Jersey ended up blocking out Tampa Bay more. It appears the Lightning were successfully slowing down the Devils’ hot offense. It definitely helped that they won a jaw-dropping ~71% of the faceoffs too.

ECFs, Game 2 - Devils’ lack of discipline cost them as well as not converting their own power plays.
ECFs, Game 2 - Devils’ lack of discipline cost them as well as not converting their own power plays.

Game 2 would have went a lot differently if they had scored on that early 5-on-3. Or if they scored on the other three power plays they had. They had one right after Conacher’s goal; it could have stemmed the Bolts a bit and keep the score manageable. They failed and the four straight calls were mostly out of frustration from how the game went.

ECFs, Game 2 - Player Ratings
ECFs, Game 2 - Player Ratings

Seen Stamkos? If you did in this game, then you saw him play one of his best games in 2020. He absolutely smashed the Devils when he was on the ice. He was head and shoulders among his own linemates - Johnson and Kucherov - who are no slackers are either. McDonagh also had a magnificent game at both ends of the rink. While not unbeatable, Vasilevskiy was more than solid and helped ensure the Devils would stay well-behind in this game. As for the Devils, Blackwood deserved the early hook. Zajac had a bad game, but where I expected other low ratings, I did not see them. For a team that lost by four, there were fewer ‘sixes’ than I would have thought. Gusev, Vatanen, and Palmieri did great despite the big deficit on the scoreboard. Perhaps it was a sign for a better Game 3.

Eastern Conference Finals, Game 3 - A Bounce Back Delayed

The Amalie Arena is not as large as the original ThunderDome. But it still fills up very well and nearly 20,000 people yelling at you to lose is still nearly 20,000 people making a lot of noise. A particularly rough first period featured each team trading off three penalties each. The special teams units got a work out whereas the bottom sixes of each squad got a nice break. The penalty killers mostly prevailed. The exception came during Mathieu Joseph’s tripping minor. Hughes found Palmieri lurking unbeknownst to any Bolt by the right post. Pass, shot, score, 1-0. It was a positive start.

Tampa Bay would respond with a flood of offense to start the second period. Within the first 5:04 of the period, the Lightning blitzed Blackwood for three scores. First, it was Stamkos. Then came fourth-liner Carter Verhaeghe putting one in. Then Patrick Maroon finished a play to make it 1-3. The Amalie Arena was going nuts. They felt a repeat of Game 2 was going to happen and they were going to see it in person. P.K. Subban took a slashing penalty shortly after Maroon’s goal. The fans assumed it would be 1-4 and would see Blackwood get pulled. Unfortunately for them, Blackwood rebounded. He calmed the game down and helped New Jersey kill the call. Killorn was caught hooking and so the Devils had a prime chance. It was taken when Palmieri found Hall coming in open on a rush into the zone for a PPG. The score was now 2-3. A little after that Point high-sticked Zajac in the chops. Blood was drawn and so he got four for it. Tampa Bay killed it but the fans realized that the Devils just needed one shot and they were taking many shots on Tampa Bay.

The Devils ramped it up in the third period. They were down one and just needed one to go in. Their volume exceeded 30 quickly and were soon reaching the 40 plateau. Every Lightning penalty since the Point double-minor was booed but one could sense a gasp underneath. A wish that this penalty would not cost the Lightning the lead. The Devils did not score on the power play again for the rest of Game 3. They did score in the third period. Just before the five-minute mark, Zajac moved it up ice to Gusev. He went down the wing as usual, he beat his man (Jan Rutta), and he realized there was no Devil across his wing. The Goose took matters into his own hands. He cut in the middle, charged to the top of the crease, and rounded a shot past Vasilevskiy. It was 3-3. The Devils did not stop attacking and so the Lightning faithful were wishing overtime would come instead of conceding another goal. The game went into OT.

Sometimes, overtime in the playoffs is measured and played carefully. It is sudden death, no one wants to take the risk that could end the game. The Devils opted to keep the game rolling as it did in the third period. The Lightning were forced to take two calls: Åberg for roughing over three minutes in. Vasilevskiy bailed out the Bolts. The Devils kept working and the shot count went to ludicrious numbers. The Devils passed 40 a long way back. They passed 50 within the first overtime and they ended with over 60. This was helped by McDonagh taking a hooking call in the final minute of the first overtime. Intermission was called. New Jersey was storming and the Lightning looked like they were weathering them for much of the period.

The Devils were not able to generate much in the overrun of the power play in overtime. The second power play unit started the period. As it featured Zajac and Simmonds up front, Wood came over the boards at even strength to make it a regular line. The Lightning still had their top penalty killers out. A clearing attempt was recovered by Forbort, who played it up to Zajac in the neutral zone. Zajac played it out wide to Wood, who was relatively fresh. He got past Sergachev whilst Simmonds tried to get past Johnson. Johnson tried to hold him up but he faltered and Simmonds was about to get past him. That was when Wood sent the puck across towards Simmonds from the corner. Simmonds saw this puck coming and knew that from all of the passes he has received in his career, he would not miss this one. He one-timed it and the puck was slammed into the net before Vasilevskiy could even get close to stretching for it. Wood mobbed Simmonds. Then all of the white jerseys headed over to celebrate. The Lightning fans had a mixture of disgust, disappointment, and shock. At the 81:44 mark, the Devils won 4-3 and took a 2-1 lead in the series.

ECFs, Game 3 - The Devils came back!
ECFs, Game 3 - The Devils came back!

Too many times in the season, the Devils would get out to a lead like what Tampa Bay built up. It would end up becoming close, tied, or worse lost by the end of regulation. It is nice to see the Devils on the right end of that situation. The Devils had boatloads of shots and power plays. 62 shots is a massive amount even with factoring in that the game took over 80 minutes. Ten power plays is a lot of opportunities. It is a shame the Devils could not finish on them earlier, but they ended up getting the dramatic double OT win - thanks to the Wayne Train. Choo choo.

ECFs, Game 3 - Tampa Bay’s penalty problems just escalated from the second period.
ECFs, Game 3 - Tampa Bay’s penalty problems just escalated from the second period.

You know penalties are a problem when they all do not show up on one screen. The excised listings were as follows: 51:44, Cernák for roughing; 55:53, McDonagh for cross-checking; 63:04, Åberg for roughing; and 79:00, McDonagh for hooking. The Lighting took 7 straight shorthanded situations, including a double-minor by Point not long after the Devils pulled within one goal. They played with the wrong kind of fire. While New Jersey did not score on any of those power plays, they contributed to the Devils out-shooting them 62-36, which is an obscene amount of shots to allow even in a game that went beyond regulation.

ECFs, Game 3 - Player Ratings
ECFs, Game 3 - Player Ratings

The game certainly was not the goaltender’s fault. A goalie making 58 saves is not why they lost. I am surprised to see McDonagh get a ‘9’ since he took as many penalties as he had minors. Ditto for Rutta getting a ‘7’ since Gusev made him look like a traffic cone on the equalizer. The Devils had most stand out performances. The top two lines showed up, with Palmieri taking the first star of the game honors. The fourth line also had a strong game, capped off by Simmonds winning the game. The defense save for Greene was solid. Game 3 could have gone either way. Fortunately, it went New Jersey’s way.

Eastern Conference Finals, Game 4 - Walled Off

Abrams kept the same lineup from Game 3 in for Game 4. The New Jersey Devils had a good chance as any to make it a 3-1 series lead. Then the puck dropped. The Lightning attacked first and struck early on. Seven minutes and nineteen seconds in, the Devils iced the puck. Two seconds later, Luke Schenn launched a bomb from the right point past Blackwood for a 0-1 deficit. Maroon took a roughing call on the next shift. Instead of the Devils tying it up, Stamkos stole a puck from Kesssel, went off all alone at the Devils net, and beat Blackwood cleanly to make it 0-2. Blackwood looked like he had the confidence sapped out of him. The Lightning fans enjoyed it as the Devils went into the locker room hoping for some answers for the second period.

The Devils would punish the Lightning for a penalty early on. Joseph tripped up a Devil. About a minute later, Hall hooked up Palmieri behind the net past an unsuspecting McDonagh. Palmieri curled around the left post and stashed in the puck to make it 1-2. The groans and bellyaches from the crowd came out when Point was given a five-minute major for clipping. This was a great chance for the Devils to score a PPG to tie it up. Instead, near the end of it, Killorn stuffed Hughes on a forecheck by the left dot. He took the puck, flung it across to Johnson, and he one-timed it in. The Devils conceded their second shorthanded goal of the game and were down 1-3. After Point came out of the box, Hedman let a shot rip from the right point and it eluded Blackwood. The Devils were down 1-4. The home fans were having a ball. The Devils fans were wondering why wasn’t Blackwood pulled or why a timeout was not called.

Blackwood would be better as the game went on. But the Devils were unable to make a lot of headway to the net like they did in Game 3. Hedman was dominating on just about every shift. When the Devils did through to Vasilevskiy, he was a wall. And every line from the Lightning played their roles and worked hard to keep from giving the Devils another easy chance. The Devils were beaten and beaten soundly Game 4. The score held by the end of regulation for a 1-4 loss. The best of seven became a best of three. At least the Devils had home ice.

ECFs, Game 4 - The Lightning took over this game quickly.
ECFs, Game 4 - The Lightning took over this game quickly.

The Devils went from 62 shots in 80+ minutes against Tampa Bay to just 25 in 60 in the next game. Tampa Bay really shut down the Devils. Their special teams won the game on the scoreboard, but their even strength play was very much keeping the Devils from coming back at all in Game 4.

ECFs, Game 4 - The Lightning dared the Devils in terms of penalties.  There was not enough punishment.
ECFs, Game 4 - The Lightning dared the Devils in terms of penalties. There was not enough punishment.

You cannot say the Devils did not have their chances in theory. They had two power plays in the first and ended up being outscored on them, 0-1. The major to Point was a big one that resulted in another shorthanded goal against. The Lightning tightened up after the second period and played a lot smarter. They realized they did not need to give the Devils more chances than they already did. Even though the ones they did allow were not realized.

ECFs, Game 4 - Player Ratings
ECFs, Game 4 - Player Ratings

Blackwood ended the game as a ‘6.’ He was low as a ‘4’ after it was 0-2 and 1-4 in the game. Again, I’m surprised Oettinger did not go in for him. Boqvist was bad. The defensemen were not bad but not all that great. The fourth line returned to normalcy and only Hall had a rating above a seven. The Lightning featured Vasilevskiy, Stamkos, and Hedman all having great to utterly fantastic nights. When your team’s best three players are playing this well, then you usually win outright. That was what happened in Game 4.

Meanwhile, over in the West, Colorado fans were irate as their team got swept hours after the Lightning tied up the series. Nashville won one overtime game in their sweep of Las Vegas in the first round. Nashville won two OTs in their series win over Calgary. In Game 4, Nashville won three straight games in overtime to sweep the Avs. If losing by an overtime shorthanded goal in Game 3 was not bad enough, the Preds tied it up within the final five minutes in Game 4 at 1-1 and not long into overtime, Colton Sissons of all players scored his first playoff goal of the year to send Nashville to the Stanley Cup Finals. Nashville would have time to wait and recover as New Jersey-Tampa Bay would continue on. Which was good news for a banged up Roman Josi. Yes, the Nashville Predators swept the Colorado Avalanche, which were led by the dominant line of Landeskog-MacKinnon-Ratanen, by keeping the games super-close and prevailing in OT.

Eastern Conference Finals, Game 5 - Changes

Abrams was not pleased with how Game 4 went. Yes, Blackwood was great in Games 1 and 3. But he got yanked in Game 2 and should have been in Game 4. The stakes were too high to offer him a chance to rebound. Oettinger would get the start back at the Rock for Game 5. Abrams also decided to take out Boqvist for Pavel Zacha. Boqvist faded in recent games. Zacha could come right in. Better him than rolling the dice on Brendan Gaunce or even playing Coleman at center (he is “accomplished” at that position). More than that, Abrams told Hynes to tell the men to start off well. He did not care how that message was delivered. He wanted it delivered.

It must have been because the Devils came out and started off quite well. They fed off the fans’ energy at the Rock. It went up a level about halfway through the third period. The third line gained the zone. Coleman worked the puck back to Andy Greene. Greene attempted a shot. It hit Zacha. He collected the puck, took a quick snapshot, and it went past Vasilevskiy. The Devils were up 1-0 thanks to Pavel Zacha. Meanwhile, Oettinger was proving Abrams’ decision to be correct as he looked far more comfortable in the crease than Blackwood did in Game 4. Late in the first, Palmieri played Hughes into the zone. Hall went down his wing. It turned out to be a makeshift 2-on-1. Instead of defending the pass or the open man, Cernák tried to hit Hughes off the puck. Hughes got a pass off to the open Hall before contact was made. Hall one-timed it in to make it 2-0, bring down very loud “M-V-P!” chants, and send the Lightning back to the locker room dejected after the first period.

Initially, it appeared the Lightning were ready to play in the second period. They started off well. Killorn finished a sequence of events from the points down the middle for a goal. It was now 2-1. But the Devils were not threatened. At least, they did not seem that way. Oettinger brushed off the GA like it was no big deal and kept making saves. The Devils’ attack started to force Tampa Bay to take calls. The Lightning killed a high-sticking minor by Sergachev, only to go back shorthanded when Paquette took a hooking minor seconds after Sergachev left the box. Vatanen hammered a hard shot from the center point. Vasilevskiy stopped it but had no chance on Palmieri collecting and putting back the rebound. The Pride of Montvale, New Jersey was greeted with rapturous cheers as the Devils went back up 3-1.

The Devils did well to take care of business in the third to ensure Tampa Bay would not rise up by the end. Within the first minute of the period, Hall led a breakout, briefly lost the puck due to a pokecheck by Rutta, recovered the loose puck, and beat Vasilevskiy in close. The “M-V-P” chants resumed. The atmosphere was like a party in the stands. The Devils were up 4-1 in an important Game 5. The party feeling increased a few minutes after that goal. The Lightning iced the puck. Stamkos won the draw and moved the puck back to McDonagh. For whatever reason, the veteran defender hesitated on the puck and did not know what to do. Hall was coming in, so he rimmed around the near corner to Kucherov. Kucherov, a veteran himself, decided to go back to the corner with McDonagh and as Hall came over, he tried to move it across behind the net to Hedman. Only the puck got away from him so it headed towards Vasilevskiy. The goalie collected the puck and tried to move it forward quickly towards Stamkos. Only he did not realize Hughes was in front of Stamkos. The Big Deal took the gift of a turnover and cashed it in for a goal. The Devils went up 5-1. The Lightning fans watching at home or elsewhere seemingly did a collective facepalm. Even AI Jon Cooper did so and became a brief meme in the EHM world. The Devils cruised to a decisive 5-1 win and take a 3-2 lead in the series.

ECFs, Game 5 - Now this is more like it.
ECFs, Game 5 - Now this is more like it.

The Devils went back to what they mostly did in their previous two rounds. They attacked, they battled, and they prevailed. Oettinger did not have a lot of work compared to Vasilevskiy, but he took care of business. The Devils did punish the Lightning for one penalty and took advantage four times at even strength. The Lightning were forced to take on 38 shots and collectively blocked another 21. The attacking machine was running well at the Rock in Game 5. It helped in the big win.

ECFs, Game 5 - Look, ma, no penalties.
ECFs, Game 5 - Look, ma, no penalties.

The Devils’ discipline was pristine. The Lightning fans as well as the haters and losers, of which there are many, cynically proclaimed online that there was no way the Devils were clean. In response: too bad.

ECFs, Game 5 - Player Ratings
ECFs, Game 5 - Player Ratings

The Devils made Vasilevskiy look ordinary. There were a handful of Bolts that you could say stepped up in this one. But this game was all about the Devils’ first line. All three members posted tens. Like I just wrote in Game 4, when your top players are stupendous, then you’re likely going to win. So it went for the Devils. The Devils’ third line, the defense as a whole (especially Butcher), and Oettinger all played great too.

Eastern Conference Finals, Game 6 - Elimination Attempt #1

The Devils had every reason to feel good going into Game 6. They beat the Lightning 5-1 two days earlier. A lot of players played well in the game. The Devils won Game 3 at Amalie Arena earlier in this series, so they knew they could do it. They also had two chances to eliminate the Lightning. They also knew the Lightning’s mindset would be dangerous. Being down 3-2 in the series, they had everything to gain and nothing to lose in this one. The Devils players, staff, and even Abrams himself recognized that the Devils had to be prepared for a very feisty Lightning team in Game 6. Saying it and doing it are two different things.

The start was great for New Jersey. Nico Hischier finished a breakout rush up ice and scored on New Jersey’s first shot. The Devils were up 1-0 before even a minute passed in the game. Alas, that would be the last time the Devils led in this game. With under six minutes left in the first period, Johnson provided an equalizer. It also got the fans back in the game, although they were getting some heat off of Vasilevskiy making stops.

The second period was a bad one for the Devils. Kucherov scored 24 seconds into the period to take the lead. Midway through the period, Severson took a hooking call as a result of the Lightning’s constant pressure in the Devils’ zone. Severson did not sit in the box very long. Stamkos scored early in the power play to extend Tampa Bay’s lead to 1-3. Minutes after that, Stamkos did it again off a feed from Kucherov to put the Lightning up 1-4. The Devils were getting buried in this period. So much so that the Lightning just did not need to choke in the third period.

The Lightning could not keep the Devils off the board for good. But they did keep them at bay for more than half of the period. Zajac broke through off a mistake by the Lightning. Vasilevskiy played a long dump-in right to Conacher. Conacher hesitated and that was enough for Wood to take the puck right from him. Wood passed it to Zajac, who was in front of the net, and Zajac scored to make it 2-4. It was too little too late. The Devils could not muster another one to make a comeback possible. Hynes pulled Oettinger anyway for an extra skater. All that did was give Paquette an empty net goal. The Devils lost Game 6, 2-5. It would all come down to one final game at the Rock in two days.

ECFs, Game 6 - The Lightning decisively won this one similar to how the Devils did in Game 5.
ECFs, Game 6 - The Lightning decisively won this one similar to how the Devils did in Game 5.

As great as it is to start a playoff game with a goal, the Devils never recovered from the deluge in the second period. Sure, Zajac scored. There was a little more than seven minutes left when he did. With Tampa Bay limiting New Jersey to 23 shots all game on top of Vasilevskiy playing like himself, Game 6 was a decisive win in response to the Devils’ decisive win in Game 5.

ECFs, Game 6 - The Devils’ discipline was not good either.
ECFs, Game 6 - The Devils’ discipline was not good either.

Sergachev taking a cross-checking penalty not long after Hischier scored first must have made a lot of Lightning fans anxious. However, the Devils were the ones more guilty in this game. Even Butcher took a minor, which is generally rare. The Severson minor was the only one Tampa Bay made the Devils pay for; but six additional minutes to keep the main offense off the ice contributed to this loss.

ECFs, Game 6 - Player Ratings
ECFs, Game 6 - Player Ratings

Jack Hughes had a bad game. Hall and Palmieri had uncharacteristically quiet games too. While the Devils were not middling, the Lightning received a lot of strong performances. Stamkos, Kucherov, and Johnson led the way up front. Hedman led the defense. Vasilevskiy did not need to be great; good was good enough in Game 6.

Eastern Conference Finals, Game 7 - Elimination Attempt #2

Game 7 as a concept is both thrilling and terrifying. Knowing that it is for a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals adds to the pressure. Sure, it is at the Rock. As great as it would be to see the Devils win at home and be there for it, it would be crushing to see them eliminated in person too. It makes for a stressful time.

Curiously, Abrams made no line changes for this game. He went with what worked in Game 5 despite it not going so well for Game 6. He banked on the top line turning it around.

There was no quick goal to start the game. However, the Devils did strike first and the crowd reacted accordingly. Excited but knowing that it was just one goal. Hischier was played into the zone by P.K. Subban and the center just got around Stamkos as he headed to the net. Hischier finished his stroll with a goal and the Devils were up 1-0. This lead would not last, though. About six minutes later, a dump-in for Killorn led to the winger beating Subban to the puck. Hischier missed his assignment so Point was wide open to head to the net, take a pass from Killorn, and tie up the game 1-1. Teeth were gnashed. Swears were uttered. The game played on. Late in the first period, Subban took a cross-checking penalty. However, the Lightning would not take advantage. In fact, a rare feat happened. Zajac cleared the puck down the end of the ice. The Lightning recovered and started to break out. Zajac and Coleman were forechecking and Zajac knocked the puck away from Sergachev with a big hit. The puck fell to Coleman, who beat a surprised Vasilevskiy for a shorthanded goal. The Devils in EHM have not scored a single shorthanded goal against a goalie all season. Coleman scored the very first one - and it put the Devils up 2-1 in the final minute of the first period of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Talk about a great time to get that started.

The fans were pleased but still nervous. They have seen this picture before. They have seen six games of knowing Tampa Bay is capable of coming back. Whether they would or not is another matter. Early in the second period, Hedman went off for two minutes for cross-checking Gusev down in the slot. Hischier won the face off, sent it back to Vatanen, and the crowd roared loudly when his slapshot beat the goalie. The Devils were up 3-1 early in the second. Maybe this would turn out to be an easier game than originally thought.

Tampa Bay said no. With just over eleven minutes left in the period, the Lightning won a defensive zone faceoff, the puck was won to Hedman, then Verhaeghe, and then Kucherov. Kucherov marched down the wing, got well past Vatanen and Subban, headed towards the net, and beat Oettinger one-on-one to make it 3-2. The fans at the Rock went back to being nervous. They were still chanting the Devils to “Let’s go,” but internally they were worrying. This came to a head about six minutes later when Stamkos ended up in a makeshift breakaway. He sailed the puck over the net. But he won his own rebound ahead of Butcher. He made a pass back to Hedman, who received it just before Palmieri could pick it off. Hedman took a long shot. Oettinger stopped it but no one was on Killorn in front to deny him the rebound. 3-3. The Lightning tied it up 3-3 within the second period of Game 7 for the right to compete for the greatest trophy in sports. I think all fans involved were a nervous wreck.

One’s loyalties guided how one reacted in the third. An early slashing call on Subban led to many at the Rock just hoping it would be killed. The home fans cheered when Maroon took a roughing minor. Cheered again when Killorn got a roughing minor later. And cheered really loud when Luke Witkowski took a cross-checking penalty within the final two minutes of regulation. It was in the hopes that loud noises would either propel the Devils power play or throw off the Lightning penalty kill. It was also in the hopes of this game not having to go into sudden death where anything could go awry in a flash and that would be it. The Devils’ power play did not succeed on either of the three third-period situations. They attacked but not really overwhelmingly. Oettinger was playing well but fans were still wondering if Blackwood would have been preferable. Any scoring chance of half-chance was greeted with heightened anticipation or fear depending on which end of the rink it happened. This would only get more intense as overtime was indeed needed.

Unlike Game 3, there would be only one overtime period. Oh, but it was a roller coaster of emotions to get there. Fans were upset that Zacha took a cross-checking penalty in overtime. Of all the times to commit a penalty and one that would not prevent a goal, overtime in a Game 7 is one of the worst times to do it. The Devils PK weathered the Lightning power play. That is until they got a break. The Lightning dumped it in and Sergachev played it around. In coming across, Cory Conacher knocked down Damon Severson. The referees whistled that for roughing. There would be a brief four-on-four before an abbreviated power play for New Jersey.

The Devils forced an offensive zone faceoff from a Vasilevskiy freeze. The Lightning won the draw and made a clear as Zacha left the box. Stamkos was pushing hard to beat Subban to the cleared puck and ultimately won it. But Subban was able to get Stamkos to lose it behind the net. Hughes recovered and started the breakout. He made the first pass out before taking a hit from Kucherov. Hall took it up ice and then passed it across to Hischier to gain the zone. With Hedman bearing down on him, he passed it to his right to Palmieri, who was joining the rush. Meanwhile, Hall was heading to the net. Palmieri saw him. Only McDonagh was back. The fans rose to their feet. Palmieri attempted the pass which eluded McDonagh. Some say it was a saucer pass. Some say it fooled McDonagh in terms of positioning. Regardless, Hall received the puck on the tape of his stick. He did not hestitate. He fired towards the net with Vasilevskiy beaten dead to rights. The puck was in! Hall scored! The Devils won in overtime! The Devils were going to the Stanley Cup Finals! The reaction at the Rock was as loud when Henrique told Our Hated Rivals it was over! The “M-V-P” chants lasted for a good two minutes straight! The love for Hall was so real, they booed a little when Hall was announced as only the third star of the game.

(By the way, the headline photo is Hall’s OT winner in Game 7. Sweet “defense” by the Bolts’ penalty killers.)

The handshake lines were set up and the two teams shared their respects. This was very much a close series with plenty of big swings back and forth. It could have gone either way. It would not have been a failure to have the Devils bow out of the Eastern Conference Finals. They did not fail though. They were presented with the Prince of Wales Trophy (which Greene did not touch) and there was a brief celebration in the locker room. This was until Abrams stormed in after the media left and said, “Next game is in two days. Nashville’s tough. Don’t get cocky.” The players quieted down and knew there was more work to be done. This did not stop the fans from around the world from embracing the ecstasy of victory.

ECFs, Game 7 - The scoreless third was nerve wracking to see in the simulation.
ECFs, Game 7 - The scoreless third was nerve wracking to see in the simulation.

Not to be negative, but the Devils not only blew this lead but came really close to blowing a 3-2 series lead. Oettinger staying in was a bit of a risk but he showed up well after Killorn’s goal. The Devils’ offense did not run roughshod over Tampa Bay, but they did out-do them in that respect. The special teams definitely favored New Jersey. Two important power play goals and the team’s first shorthanded goal since 2018-19. This was the right night to get that going.

ECFs, Game 7 - Penalties were more even, but Tampa Bay took one too many.
ECFs, Game 7 - Penalties were more even, but Tampa Bay took one too many.

Of course, you cannot have power play goals without penalties. Both teams took plenty of calls that made the staff lose some hair or cause it to go gray or some other bodily-reaction to a bad event. Lightning fans were likely on the edge of their seats as their team took three straight minors in the third period of a 3-3 game. Devils fans were when Subban took his slash and Zacha took his cross-check. Conacher’s roughing call (66:21) was the ultimate difference maker. Lesson for everyone: Don’t try to throw someone down away from the puck during a power play, especially in overtime in a win-or-go-home game.

ECFs, Game 7 - Player Ratings
ECFs, Game 7 - Player Ratings

Yes, the three stars of the game went Hischier, Hedman, and then Hall. This makes how the game went about even more impressive. Nobody except Conacher - a costly penalty in OT bumped him down to a ‘5’ - really had a bad game on the Lightning. Stamkos, Kucherov, and Killorn did well. Sergachev largely did well. Hedman was a dominant force again. Vasilevskiy played fairly well. And the Devils overcame that. They did so with Coleman and Bastian playing better than their center, Zacha. They did so with their defense mostly playing well, save for Severson. They did it with Hall, Palmieri, Kessel, Wood, and Gusev having good to great games. And the best Devil was Nico Hischier. Hall deserved the chants for sure, but Hischier earned plenty of accolades for this momentous game.

For the neutral, this Game 7 had it all. It had calls. It had close moments. It had big saves. It had overtime. It ended with arguably the league’s best player finishing a pass from one of the best wingers with the home crowd going bonkers in response. What would top this?

Playoff Stats at a Glance

Here are the Devils players’ stats by points after the Eastern Conference Finals:

Devils player stats after the ECFs.
Devils player stats after the ECFs.

Hall has the highest average rating at 8.35 and the most goals with 10. Palmieri is running away with the scoring lead with 23 points in 17 games already. Gusev and Hischier ended the ECFs with 18 points as they added 7 and 9 points respectively in the Tampa Bay series. Only defensemen are goalless and even then its only Butcher, Greene, Smith, and Forbort. Vatanen got on the board with a long range bomb in Game 7. Bastian got on the board in Game 1. Simmonds scored a huge goal in double-overtime. It’s great to see them get involved in the scoring, which is still very much coming from different sources most nights. It is encouraging to see Wood has played his way up to an average above 7. Ditto for Greene reaching an average of 7. The only ones who have been struggling consistently have been Zajac, Zacha, and Boqvist.

NHL Playoff Scoring Leaders after ECFs
NHL Playoff Scoring Leaders after ECFs

Stamkos was a real, real, real bad man in the Eastern Conference Finals. He put up six goals and five asissts in the series. The Devils had no real answer for him most nights. Instead of worrying about Vasilevskiy, he was the real threat. He also cannot take the playoff scoring lead. Palmieri out-produced him and he is done. Nashville’s top scorer is Filip Forsberg with four goals and nine assists. He is quite good (an average rating of 8.15 is really good) but the Devils have the players to produce more than him. After all, six of the top ten are Devils.

You know, I have not looked at the goalies among the league in a while. Since Blackwood and Oettinger started off the postseason so well, maybe they rank well in these stats:

NHL Goaltending Leaders by Save Percentage
NHL Goaltending Leaders by Save Percentage

Well, the bloom kind of came off the rose. Both Blackwood and Oettinger remain above a 90% save percentage, which is an improvement over the regular season. However, Blackwood fell from a 92.7% at the end of the Penguins series to a 90.5%. Oettinger also slipped from 90.7% to 90.1% by this series end. That is a bit concerning going into the Stanley Cup Finals. However, they have faced off against a superior goalie in Murray and won and just did enough to keep paying longer than Vasilevskiy. The Juuse Saros and Pekka Rinne tandem should not throw them off on paper. The goal is to be good enough, not necessarily good and so far the goal is met. It would be great if they would improve. At least they are not on the bottom end.

What’s Next & Your Take

The Stanley Cup Finals is what’s next! Abrams received this message so you know its official:

Confirmation that the Devils are playing Nashville - which we all knew would be the opponent since Game 4.
Confirmation that the Devils are playing Nashville - which we all knew would be the opponent since Game 4.

The Devils played two games against Nashville in the 2019-20 season in EHM. They won in Nashville 5-3 and lost to them 2-4 at home. Both without Gusev, Kessel, or Forbort. Nashville has been killer in overtime as the Saros-Rinne tandem have been strong. In addition to Forsberg, Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson (who scored that shorthanded OT winner in Game 3 against Colorado), and Mikael Granlund look to be threatening up front. Of course, the defense is supreme in Nashville. Josi is healthy, Ryan Ellis gets it done at both ends. And Dante Fabbro and Mattias Ekholm make up one of the better second pairings in the NHL. They scored their way to the Stanley Cup Finals. If there is one edge the Devils have that they do not, then it is that they know how to come back from playoff adversity. Look at the playoff tree:

The Stanley Cup Final Playoff Tree
The Stanley Cup Final Playoff Tree

NJ could be considered fatigued since they will start the finals in two days after beating Tampa Bay in overtime. But they will be home, they will have home ice, and they know that a loss may not derail them. A team that is entering the series at 12-1-0 may crumble. We shall see.

The Devils thankfully suffered no injuries in the Tampa Bay series so everyone is healthy. Martin Hanzal is not coming back at this rate, even though he is taking light practices. As planned, the Stanley Cup Finals will be posted tomorrow at 11 AM. It has been a wonderful experience, even if it is just playing pretend in Eastside Hockey Manager. For the sake of timing - again, the post has to be written for Sunday morning - I have already played the finals. Abrams made his choices. I will not give you any hints as to what happened. But please let me know what your predictions are for who takes the Cup and in how many games in the comments. Thank you for reading and indulging in this EHM Let’s Re-Do let’s play series for the past few months. The end of Sherman Abrams’ reign will be posted tomorrow.