We can debate on the last time it happened. Perhaps it was in St. Louis. Perhaps it was in Nashville. Perhaps it was in December. Either way, I put it to you that the New Jersey Devils suffered their first decisive loss in quite some time. The Devils hosted the Tampa Bay Lightning for their first meeting of the season. The Devils lost 1-4.
What makes this especially annoying is the simple fact that this is very much Round 1 of 3 games. The Devils will host Tampa Bay on Thursday in their next game. The Devils will go to Tampa Bay on Sunday, right after a quick break/trip to Miami to play the Panthers. What this means is that both teams have a sense of what the other side is all about it and can (and should) make adjustments to counter it. This favors a playoff-experienced team like the Lightning, even if Steven Stamkos remains out. This does not favor a Devils team looking to lock in their first playoff berth since 2018. This is why much of the narrative surrounding this game and the next three are about a playoff preview even if the only way the Devils will see Tampa Bay in the playoffs would be in the third round.
Still, the main takeaway from this game is very straight forward. The Devils put up a stinker. Sure, some of the 5-on-5 numbers favored them, but they were chasing the game for over half of it. Plus, the third period was basically a consolation period after a three-goal-against second period. And despite that, the Devils were out-shot by six in 5-on-5 (seven total) and out-high danger chanced by one in 5-on-5 (three total).
Consider the standouts from Sunday’s recent game. Goaltender Vitek Vanecek was crucial and perfect against Carolina. There was no way he was not starting this game. This evening, he got torched on four rushes for four goals against - including two especially bad shortside goals to Alex Killorn and Nikita Kucherov. Now, I would expect Akira Schmid to start Thursday’s game just for performance reasons. Defenseman Dougie Hamilton was excellent in his own end on Sunday. Tonight, he was burned in crucial moments such as a bizarrely passive non-coverage in a 2-on-1 shorthanded rush that ended with Anthony Cirelli scoring. Jesper Bratt and Jack Hughes led the attack on Sunday. Not much of an attack tonight what with just 23 shots on net (and out of 59 attempts). Hughes, to his credit, had a hand in creating what would be Timo Meier’s first assist as a Devil as his shot yielded a rebound goal for Damon Severson. Bratt added little to the game.
Now, good teams still get contributions throughout their lineup. Tampa Bay did not have Stamkos. That did not keep Brandon Hagel from having a three point night or Ian Cole from starting a rush that led to a last second Kucherov goal in the second period. New Jersey did not get much help from others. The unit of Nico Hischier, Tomas Tatar, and Dawson Mercer did very little and were broken up by game’s end. Jesper Boqvist will regret missing an empty net but at least he had the chance - something more than I can say for Ondrej Palat for Erik Haula. Ryan Graves and John Marino were hammered in the run of play so much that they were statistically the worst Devils skaters in 5-on-5 with sub-20% xGF% values. (Hischier out-did both of them in CF%, by the way). The power play was a net negative as indicated by Cirelli’s SHGA. The third period was basically consolation time and all the Devils yielded was a post and a bunch of saves for Andrei Vasilevskiy who had a fortunate and effective night. You win as a team and you lose as a team and the Devils clearly lost as a team tonight. If you’re looking for a positive, then look to the penalty kill - which feels like a throwback to either of the last two seasons.
There will be some of the People Who Matter who will object to this framing of the game. What about the four to five posts the Devils hit in this game? What about Ryan Graves’ goal being disallowed after Tampa Bay successfully challenged for goaltender interference - which it arguably was not? I understand and see you. I agree it was a harsh interference call against Tomas Tatar, who was pushed into the goalie by Brayden Point by my view. Please understand that the Devils could have still changed the game after those moments. Most of those posts were in the first period as was the disallowed goal. There was a lot of time to create opportunities. Instead, the Devils suffered counter-attack rushes for multiple goals in the second period and clearly did not create or take full advantage of their opportunities.
The bigger question after this game will be how will the Devils respond. They will play Tampa Bay again on Thursday. Hopefully, it will be different and better than this one.
The Game Highlights: Here are the highlights from NHL.com.
The Curtis Lazar Debut: It was OK. Lazar suited up for 15 shifts and played 10:07. He had some penalty killing shifts. He was mostly with Miles Wood (before he left the game early) and Michael McLeod. When he took a shift, the Devils did well in the run of play with 12-9 in attempts and 6-6 in shots. Lazar did not have a shot on net. He had some hits. Lazar is very much a fourth liner. He came in for Nathan Bastian, who was held out for the dreaded “upper body injury.” We shall see if Lazar is swapped out for Bastian on Thursday.
The Return of Brendan Smith: Smith was not nearly as active and involved as he was in Montreal, which I think was his best game as a Devil in recent memory. That said, when he was on the ice, the Devils crushed Tampa Bay in the run of play with a 20-8 attempt advantage, a 9-5 shot advantage, and, with Damon Severson, being the only defender without a goal against this evening. I do not think Smith was that bad! Then again, I did not think Kevin Bahl was that bad against Carolina in spite of his 5-on-5 numbers and he was swapped out for Smith. I do not think it would make a difference tonight. I wonder if Lindy Ruff is rotating these two just to see who fits in better as well as to give them a break amid this super-busy schedule.
One Adjustment I Do Want to See: Get Nico Hischier’s line away from Brandon Hagel, Nikita Kucherov, and Brayden Point! Hischier’s line got that match-up which is expected on paper as that’s Tampa Bay’s top line. The Lightning’s top line out-attempted the Devils by at least 8 in 5-on-5 play and out-scored them. Hagel in particular went off with two assists and a goal and Kucherov effectively gave the Devils a gut-punch with a goal scored with 0.8 seconds left in the second period. While Ruff mixed up the forwards in the third period, that was just consolation hockey. I would not be surprised if he starts Hischier, Tatar, and Mercer together on Thursday. I do not think one bad night should cause a breakup after two-plus weeks of great work. I just want to see them matched up against someone else.
Speaking of match-ups, the Devils pretty much trashed Corey Perry, Ross Colton, and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare in 5-on-5. A third line of Cirelli (his goal was a shorty, remember), Pat Maroon, and Tanner Jeannot was also not so hot. If there was a weak part of Tampa Bay’s game, then it was in their bottom-six. I would like to see the Devils exploit this more on Thursday if it continues early on in that game. They are at home after all. Ruff might as well use the benefit of the last change to make those guys step up.
Announcer Annoyances: Due to personal reasons, I was not at The Rock so I caught this game on TV. In a word: Ugh. Ken Daneyko putting lipstick on pigs is one thing. But going on in the third period about how this is a young team that just has to learn through this adversity made my eyes roll. Not only because virtually every player in the NHL has suffered in hockey at one point in their lives, but because the Devils’ worst players tonight were over the age of 25! Vanecek, Hamilton, Marino, Graves, and Palat are not young players! Stop this narrative, 3!
Additionally, Bill Spaulding surely got a directive to mention height and weight as much as possible while also falling to the Curse of the Commentator. The latter is a cope; the play by play guy is not wishcasting things to happen or not happen in games. Anymore than the guy in Section 15, Row 5 or the gal in Section 107, Row 6 has a say on what happens. The former was insipid as I kept hearing about Victor Hedman’s height. Did Pierre McGuire enter the production truck and say, “Hey, Bill, you got to have a gimmick. I got schools and junior teams. How about measurables?” It was that bad. Happily, I will get to ignore this on Thursday.
Pre-emptive I Don’t Think So: I am sure that some of the People Who Matter would want to see the Devils get skated or have a full practice tomorrow or something to that effect. I agree this was bad performance. I do not agree that they should do that. The Devils have to play on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, and next Tuesday. Wearing them out with extra work just to prove a point does not seem value-added to me. Now, if the Devils stink it up again on Thursday, then that is a bit different. But Ruff does not need to do anything extreme, such as bench his top players like Jon Cooper did not that long ago. I am writing this to suggest that you should not get mad if the Devils rest on Wednesday. The schedule is very tight; the rest is valuable.
Update: My opinion on rest being valuable clearly does not matter. Which makes sense, I am just a hockey blogger. Anyway, the Devils are practicing tomorrow per James Nichols.
Let Me Tell You Something You Probably Already Know But...: Me being critical of a performance worthy of criticism may ruffle a few of the feathers of the People Who Matter. I have two thoughts on that. One: This is the Internet. There is always going to be criticism, takes, feedback, thoughts, and opinions on everything. You cannot stop it. Deal with it by accepting it happens. Two: The Devils being criticized for this game does not invalidate all of the good things that have happened this season. This is known by many of the People Who Matter and it does bear mentioning. Inversely, all of the good things that have happened this season does not invalidate any criticism of this game.
One Last Thought: I asked this in the Gamethread and I received a lot of answers of “no” when I asked whether the Devils got goalied by Andrei Vasilevskiy tonight. I will say: that intrigues me.
Your Take: The Devils lost 1-4 to Tampa Bay. They will have a rematch on Thursday night. Will it be different? I certainly hope so. In the meantime, what do you think about this loss? How much of this was on Vanecek as it was on the others? How do you think the Devils will counter against the Tampa Bay counter-attack on Thursday? Did anyone on New Jersey do all that well this night? What else did you notice in the defeat? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for previewing the game this morning. Thanks to everyone who followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog and/or in the Gamethread. Thank you for reading.