Context is always key in regarding a team’s performance beyond just a single game. Sure, I could recap the New Jersey Devils 5-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on its own. There is plenty to discuss, criticize (whatever that defending on the second goal against was), and especially praise. Jesper Bratt did score his first career hat trick and the Devils came back from a 0-2 score to put up five unanswered on the road. All true and valuable. It would also miss a big reason why this victory was important.
Since putting Carolina down last Sunday, the Devils had to play Tampa Bay three times within their next four games. They played in Sunrise last night. The previous three games did not go so well for the Devils. Round 1 on Tuesday night was clearly a Tampa Bay win. It was a stinky performance in a 1-4 defeat. Concerns resumed about Vitek Vanecek as well as Jesper Bratt among others. Round 2 on Thursday night was better but still a loss. A 3-4 shootout loss that saw the Devils make two comebacks with Timo Meier scores but ultimately fell short in OT and in the shootout. Akira Schmid was in net for that one - and he would start in Sunrise. The previous game was a gut punch as the Devils went into the third period up 2-0 and found themselves down 2-3 before the halfway mark of the period. The Devils choked in a 2-4 loss and the concerns and complaints understandably raged on. How can the Devils blow it? How can they trust any goaltender? How can they handle a veteran, playoff-hardened, heavy squad like Tampa Bay? Where’s Hughes? Where’s Bratt? Where’s the defense? How can they catch Carolina? Will Our Hated Rivals catch the Devils? The Devils were winless in three games and were going to Tampa Bay this evening. A Tampa Bay team that just beat the Devils twice and decisively beat Montreal last night. Home ice and experience? How can the Devils even win this game?
We know now how they can. They broke down Tampa Bay’s attack, countered in kind, worked hard to keep shifts going, and had enough plays to finish against a rather good Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Devils did this with a decided disadvantage in penalties this evening. The Devils did this without the last change. The Devils did this despite going down two goals. And anyone who is familiar with this season as a whole should know, the Devils can absolutely mount a comeback given enough time and opportunities.
As far as the deficit itself, it was more on the defensive effort than Vanecek being poor from what I saw. Right as a penalty kill ended, Ryan Graves sent a puck out on a clearing attempt only to be picked off easily by Nikita Kucherov. One pass to Steven Stamkos and one pass back later, Kucherov made it 0-1. In the second period, the Devils started off well as the Lightning were slow to attack. Alex Killorn would lead a rush up ice. Despite Damon Severson seemingly having him one-on-one, he went down on his belly. Which made it easy for Killorn to go around him. A backchecking Nico Hischier ended up in front of the goalie, which made the shot easier to go in. 0-2. And that was the last time Tampa Bay would do any real damage in the game. Vanecek would go on to stop 13 more shots. The Devils defense clamped down and the penalty killers put in a great bit of work to limit the Lightning’s chances. Whatever they did get through, Vanecek was able to fight off pucks the right way and get in position on others. As a whole, it was a very solid defensive effort even if two poor moments costed the Devils goals.
That defensive effort was boosted by the Devils just pinning the Lightning back for the better part of the second and third periods. It would pay off big time. On the very next shift after Killorn’s goal, Jesper Bratt was played into the zone by Nico Hischier. Bratt went past Viktor Hedman, nearly lost the puck, stretched to keep it in the slot, and ripped a shot past Vasilevskiy for an instant goal. Minutes later, Bratt would fire a long shot from the blueline into traffic. Absent any other option, he just ripped one. The puck saw its way through multiple legs and past Vasilevskiy for the equalizer. 30 minutes into the game and its 2-2 with Bratt working on a hat trick. Bratt would cement his stature as the hero of the night. He took a pass from Timo Meier, flung a puck towards the empty net in the dying seconds of the game, and secured his first ever NHL hat trick by securing the Devils the win at 5-2. He even received a bucket hat - Devils, of course - for his effort on the bench. Just for putting the foundation in for the comeback, Bratt should be seen as the game’s best player. The hats surely guaranteed that. Also, just look at this (thanks to Ryan Novozinsky for retweeting this artful screenshot):
March 20, 2023
Of course, Bratt is one man and the Devils’ attack had many contributors. The go-ahead goal came from Nico Hischier, sliding a wrister through Vasilevskiy’s legs to make it 3-2 late in the second period. Nolan Foote was called up ahead of the weekend as extra coverage with Nathan Bastian and Miles Wood out injured. Foote entered the lineup as Cutris Lazar was injured in the loss to the Panthers. Foote not only played quite well on an effective fourth line with Michael McLeod and Yegor Sharangovich. Foote scored a huge insurance goal in the third period. Just after Bratt was denied in a 2-on-1 and a little bit after Erik Haula was robbed on a 2-on-1, Foote gained the zone. Thanks to a Zach Bogosian screen, Foote’s shot beat Vasilevskiy low for his first goal of the season. The Devils were up 4-2 and had a cushion to work with. The Devils kept the offense rolling for 40 minutes thanks to great shifts from Jack Hughes, Erik Haula, and Dawson Mercer as well as the Hischier and McLeod lines. Being able to tilt the ice, especially with a lead, put the pressure on Tampa Bay. And the Lightning could not rise up to the challenge.
The larger point is that the Devils’ performance answered a lot of the recent criticism from the previous three games. The Devils put in a great team performance after a poor loss and a not-so-amazing start to the game. The Devils reminded the hockey world and some of the People Who Matter that they are very capable of coming back in games to win them. The Devils demonstrated that the veteran presence and reputation of the Tampa Bay Lightning did not really keep the Lightning from blowing a two-goal lead and conceding five unanswered goals. Even with three more power plays than the Devils. The Devils hopefully soothed a lot of the burgeoning worries with this win. Vanecek did well. The defense stepped up as the game went on. The offense emerged to score four past an established goaltender. The Devils finally beat Tampa Bay in Round 3 of 3. The 2022-23 New Jersey Devils are indeed a Very Good team.
The Game Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The Natural Stat Trick Game Stats
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here are the highlights of tonight’s game.
The 5-on-5 Run of Play Tonight Did Not Lie: The first period saw the Devils edge out the Lightning in attempts, but tied in shots, and behind the Lightning in chances. That reflected how the first period went in general. The Devils did not really force Vasilevskiy to make tough stops in the first frame. While the goal conceded was right after a penalty kill ended, the Lightning pushed their way forward plenty of times. The Devils went ahead eventually on attempts due to chasing the game, but it was not until the second period where the Devils really throttled the Lightning.
The NST numbers say it all: 27-18 in attempts for New Jersey. 17-5 in shots. 17-9 in scoring chances, and 8-0 in high danger chances. Remember, this is 5-on-5 only. The Devils started off hot and made Vasilevskiy work. After Killorn’s goal, Bratt beat him, Bratt beat him again, and then Hischier beat him. The Lightning had a handful of surges later on in the period. But other than Killorn’s goal and the heinous high sticking penalty on John Marino, the Devils owned the second period. That they finished it 3-1 in goals and 3-2 on the scoreboard was just.
This continued on into the third period. With a lead, the Devils did not need to flood the goalie with shot attempts. They still had a strong edge in 5-on-5. 15-12 in attempts, 10-6 in shots, 11-3 in scoring chances, and 6-0 in high danger chances. I cannot stress enough how big it was for the Devils skaters to just deny opportunities for the Lightning in the slot and in the crease in 5-on-5. Sure, there were five HDCAs in the third period and all of them were on power plays. But the Devils’ defensive effort really shined as the offense kept the Lightning more than honest. If you wanted an example of how 5-on-5 team stats can show how a performance went, then this game was a great example of that.
5-on-5 Studs: The Lightning’s most effective players in 5-on-5 tonight were Michael Eyssimont, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Patrick Maroon, Darren Raddysh, and Mikhail Sergachev. Notice I did not write Kucherov or Point or Hagel or Hedman or Stamkos. Those five were the only Lightning players to finish above 50% in Corsi. Among those five (and the team), only Sergachev finished above 50% in expected goals. Being able to keep Tampa Bay’s top players - aside from Sergachev - from rolling through the Devils in 5-on-5 was a big factor in how the Devils took the lead and never lost it.
On the Devils side, there were some outstanding on-ice rates. Dougie Hamilton and Jonas Siegenthaler were bosses as each saw just three Tampa Bay shots on net, less than 0.26 xGA, and helped create a load of shots. The Big Deal may have been pointless but when he was on the ice, the Lightning were forced to defend as the Devils out-attempted the Lightning 16-8 and out-shot them 10-3 with #86 out there. Foote was the best of an effective fourth line; when he took a shift, the Devils out-attempted the Lightning 16-9 and out-shot them 7-3 as well as scored a goal himself. Meier, Bratt, and Mercer were similarly impactful. In fact, the only Devils who struggled in 5-on-5 were Ryan Graves and Jesper Boqvist.
Penalties, Penalties, and Penalty Kills: The Devils’ PK units got eight minutes to work with, including two crossing over both intermissions. They held Tampa Bay’s power play to just three shots on net. The Lightning missed some glorious looks. Brayden Point in the slot in the third period put one wide that I am sure he would want back, for example. But the Devils’ penalty kill units were on top of the Lightning. If a puck went free, they gave chase for it and often won the battle for it. The Devils did a great job in denying some zone entries, especially in their final PK of the game. The Devils’ units own a good part of a win where they had four opportunities to kill and the Lightning just had the one.
Some dubious calls were made among the four. Two were legitimate. Dougie Hamilton’s interference call on Ross Colton was legitimate as he hit the player to deny him a chance at the puck. That one looked worse over time as both teams got away with some questionable bodying-up of players on defense. The Jesper Boqvist tripping penalty was just a bad penalty to take. He straight up tripped Sergachev by the blueline in open ice. I know he was trying to go for the puck but he put his stick in the player’s legs. With nearly four minutes left in regulation and up 4-2, it could have been a costly one. Thankfully, the PK units killed both - even if Kucherov’s goal came shortly after the Hamilton penalty ended.
The other two were just bad calls. Timo Meier was high sticked. There was no call, but a rather weak-looking slash at Ian Cole was. At this point, I wonder if Meier just has a bad reputation with officials. Some of the calls he has taken in his short time as a Devil have been obvious and stupid to take. This one paled in comparison and followed an even worse foul that was not called. That one would carry over the first intermission. Late in the second period, John Marino was given a high-sticking penalty against Tanner Jeannot. Right after Marino played the puck, Jeannot went in high and got Marino’s followed-through stick. I know players are responsible for their sticks, but Jeannot went in on that one almost to try and draw it on purpose. Which he apparently succeeded. Given how many calls were ignored against Tampa Bay - including a heinous take down of Marino after the Lightning pulled the goalie - it rubs me the wrong way.
Fortunately, the Devils handled their business professionally. Lindy Ruff kept his mouth shut. As did the players. As did the other coaches. They went out there, killed the penalties, and ensured that the calls, good or bad, would not decide the game.
Also - Accountability: The creation of the Kucherov goal was due to one really awful clearing attempt by Ryan Graves. With time and space, he could have flung it into the wide open spaces beyond the blueline. Or off the glass and out. Instead, he just put it up next to the net and just about right to Kucherov. Ruff punished the defenseman for it. The goal was scored at 3:26 into the first period. Graves would not see the ice until 16:06 into the first period. He was benched for nearly 15 minutes. His performance did improve a bit there, but he earned the punishment. Good on Ruff for doing so and good on Graves for accepting it.
A Return of Bahl: Kevin Bahl drew into the lineup to replace Brendan Smith, who played in the Florida game. Bahl was caught flat-footed once, maybe twice in the game. Otherwise, he was very solid in handling his business along the boards. He did not over-commit on a pinch. He held his gaps well. He took no penalties or get bossed around by the Bolts in 5-on-5. It was a good performance. If he can cut out the times where he was caught slow, then I think he would be a safe bet to be in the lineup more often than Smith. We shall see if he earns it over the next four weeks.
Another Sign of Teamwork: Everyone had at least one shot on net tonight. Every Devil from Foote (1 shot, 1 goal) to Bratt (5 shots) put something on or past Vasilevskiy. Even the less-than-impressive nights from Boqvist, Graves, and Tomas Tatar yielded some objective offense.
A Criticism: The one Devils power play, well, the first unit was not so bad. It had some possession, a good zone entry, and one good one-timer from Meier set-up from the wing. Then the second unit came out and struggled with Anthony Cirelli. No, not the Tampa Bay penalty kill. Just Cirelli. It was only for 40 seconds and it was just hideous. The power play in general needs to sharpen up. While it has not been that bad over the whole season, even a power play that just attacks more regularly is a threat to punish opponents for their penalties. Had the Devils not open things up in 5-on-5, the one power play could have been crucial. It was not tonight, thankfully. But better to address it in coming games before it becomes a cost. Like it was in the first Tampa Bay game.
Congratulations: Once again, as it bears repeating, Jesper Bratt scored his first hat trick in the NHL. The goal was also his 30th of this season and his 100th in his career. The empty netter sealed the win and his other two goals set up the comeback. This hat trick is surely huge for Jesper Bratt. Consistent production from him resuming now would just add another layer of greatness for this already great season.
Additionally, Hischier’s goal - the one that put the Devils up in the game - is also his 30th of the season. Bratt and Hischier have the 45th and 46th instance in franchise history of a player scoring 30 or more in a season. Combined with Jack Hughes’ 37 goals, the Devils have three 30+ goal scorers. This is the first time the Devils have had that since 2011-12 when Ilya Kovalchuk had 37, Zach Parise had 31, and David Clarkson had 30. I will boldly predict that Hughes, Hischier, and Bratt will exceed the combined total of those three. The trio in 2000-01 (Elias with 40, Sykota with 35, Mogilny with 43), well, that will take some heaters.
Two Open Questions I Had During the Game: I wonder if Jack Hughes would be seen as Looking Better if more Devils finished some of his passes. This came up when he made a great pass across to Erik Haula, who was subsequently robbed by Vasilevskiy going post-to-post. But seriously, Hughes continues to steal pucks, handle them well, drive in, and create shots for himself and others. The points will come and this is still a guy with, what, 14 points in his last 16 games? I remain not-worried about Hughes.
I wonder if Michael McLeod was behind held back by Wood and Bastian. McLeod has played far more fluid and effective on offense with Sharangovich, Lazar, and Foote. Maybe it was a match-up thing, but I’m inclined to not see either Bastian or Wood rushed back. Foote’s game warrants minutes. Sharangovich is moving like he knows he has a role to earn on the roster. Lazar looked as advertised - a fourth-line defensive forward - so far. McLeod came close to tying up the before the Killorn goal when a bouncing puck in front denied a put-back for him. McLeod is getting better looks than he usually has for most of the this season. It is something to keep an eye on in these final four weeks.
One Last Thought: I was under the impression that young teams would wilt against more experienced teams, smaller teams would struggle against bigger and more physical squads, and a team with as much recent playoff success as Tampa Bay would handle things like leads in important games. Do not forget that as New Jersey is chasing Carolina, Tampa Bay is chasing Toronto. Yet, the size, the experience, the home ice, and the age were ultimately non-factors in the Devils scoring five unanswered goals in tonight’s comeback win. I will try to remember this game when those complaints and concerns and comments come up - from the Hockey Media to the People Who Matter.
Your Take: The Devils came back to win 5-2 in Tampa Bay with a great team performance. You know what I think of the game. What is your take on the game? Was Bratt not amazing? Who else amazed you tonight? What can the Devils take out of this game before they host Minnesota on Tuesday night? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this win in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for the game preview this morning. Thanks to everyone who followed along with @AAtJerseyBlog on Twitter and the Gamethread here. Thank you for reading.