The Time: 7:00 PM ET
The last Devils game
The Devils ended the first half of the 2021-22 season with a thud against the Dallas Stars, a 5-1 home loss. I recapped that game Tuesday night and that game was a perfect microcosm of the first half of the Devils season. Poor goaltending, poor defense, a player (Michael McLeod) was injured, and Jesper Bratt being the only winger on the Devils who can light the lamp.
The last Lightning game
The Tampa Bay Lightning finished a California road trip with a bang in a 7-1 win over the Sharks Saturday night in San Jose. As you would expect, they were carried not only by their stars but their depth as well. Steven Stamkos had a goal and an assist, Nikita Kucherov chipped in a couple assists, Brayden Point added a goal. You know, the usual suspects.
In classic Tampa fashion, they also got contributions by Ross Colton (2 goals), Alex Killorn (1 G, 1 A), and a goal by Mathieu Joseph. Andrei Vasilevskiy got a rare night off, but Brian Elliott didn’t miss a beat stopping 27-of-28. As per usual with Tampa, everything continues to come up Milhouse.
The last Devils-Lightning game
The last time these teams met was back on November 20th in Tampa when the Devils scored four unanswered goals in the third period to stun the defending Cup champs. I had the recap of that game as well and called it the best win of the Devils season. Little did I know at that time that that will likely remain the best win of the Devils season the rest of the way.
Yegor Sharangovich scored his first two goals of the season, snapping a lengthy drought to open the season, while Dawson Mercer, Jimmy Vesey, and Tomas Tatar also got in on the fun. Mackenzie Blackwood got off to a bit of a rough start but came on strong in the second half of that game and made some big stops to shut the Bolts down the rest of the way.
It’s crazy to think back two months ago to that win and that feeling of optimism that this team was building something, only to fast forward to today and the sense of hopelessness and despair as the Devils are yet again playing out the string and that inevitable feeling that there will be massive changes after the final game on April 29th. Enjoy Arby’s.
What will the lines look like?
Expect to see different line combinations, as the Devils mixed things up after falling behind 4-0 against the Stars Tuesday and tried to find some sort of spark to get the team going. I noted during my recap that Ruff seemed to settle on these lines for his Top 9.
Unfortunately, with Jesper Bratt being the only Devil player to score any goals the last two games, there’s only one Jesper Bratt to go around. We’ll see if these new combinations have better luck against the champs.
One player who won’t be playing is Michael McLeod, who left Tuesday’s game with an injury. McLeod was on the receiving end of Luke Glendening’s body weight falling on him and a couple shots to the head when they fought afterwards. The fact he didn’t make the trip would suggest that he might be looking at an extended absence, so its possible either Pavel Zacha shifts to center (which happened briefly in the third period of the Dallas game) or Jesper Boqvist draws into the lineup as the 4C.
Hamilton, Smith Traveling With the Team
The Devils did get a measure of good news before boarding a plane to Tampa, as Dougie Hamilton and Ty Smith returned to practice.
Let’s start with Hamilton, who wore a non-contact jersey along with a face shield to protect his surgically repaired jaw. Hamilton is now 22 days removed from surgery to repair his broken jaw, so he’s certainly trending in the right direction as he hopes to make a return.
As for Smith, its the first time he has been on the ice since suffering an upper-body injury against Arizona on January 19th. We found out after today’s practice that both Smith and Hamilton would be making the road trip, so its a reasonable assumption that one or both will return to the lineup against Tampa. I would guess that Smith is a little closer than Hamilton, but we should have a better idea during the morning skate or even warmups who is up and who is out.
What about the Goaltender?
Akira Schmid got the first audition to be the Devils goaltender after the news earlier this week that Mackenzie Blackwood was going on injured reserve. The results were not particularly good, as he gave up a goal within the first 15 seconds of the game, gave up two more over the rest of the period, and was yanked by Lindy Ruff after 20 minutes of play.
Jon Gillies came on in relief, and while he also gave up a goal within the first 15 seconds of the period, he at least provided some stability in net, which is about the best the Devils can hope for these days. I would expect Gillies to draw the start against Tampa and draw the majority of starts in net going forward until he either gives the Devils a reason not to run him out there or a better alternative presents itself.
What do the Bolts Bring to the Table?
Tampa continues to ice one of the most talented and deepest rosters in the NHL, which shouldn’t be a surprise even after losing their heralded third line of Blake Coleman - Yanni Gourde - Barclay Goodrow this past offseason.
Steven Stamkos has enjoyed a resurgent season, earning an All-Star bid with 50 points in 42 games. Joining him in Vegas will be perennial Norris candidate Victor Hedman and perennial Vezina candidate Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Expect to see the following lines from Tampa.
#tblightning lines and d-pairs today, likely same Thursday vs Devils:— Joe Smith (@JoeSmithTB) January 26, 2022
You’ll notice that Nikita Kucherov is not in the lineup for Tampa, as he recently entered COVID protocols. I wouldn’t get too excited though, as Ondrej Palat is slated to make his return for the Lightning after his own bout with COVID.
If there is one area where Tampa hasn’t excelled, it has been on special teams, as they’re 16th on the power play and 12th on the penalty kill. If the Devils want to have any chance of pulling off the upset, I would strongly urge winning the battle on special teams. The Devils penalty kill is up to 11th in the league at 82.5 %, and while the power play (25th in the league) still isn’t anything to write home about, they’ve made adjustments and have scored with the man advantage much more frequently of late.
What do you think about this evening’s matchup? Can the Devils find a way to stun the Bolts yet again in their building? Will Ty Smith and/or Dougie Hamilton return to the lineup? Please feel free to leave a comment below and thank you for reading!