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Game Preview #39: New Jersey Devils @ Tampa Bay Lightning

The Devils are back after a long break to battle a Lightning team they are neck-and-neck with for playoff positioning

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Tampa Bay Lightning Morgan Tencza-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils (21-15-2) @ Tampa Bay Lightning (20-17-5)

The Time: 7:00pm ET

The Broadcast: MSGSN, BSSUN

Last Devils Game

The Devils lost to the Vancouver Canucks back on Saturday, 6-4. The big story from that game is that Jonas Siegenthaler broke his foot and will now miss extended time.

Last Lightning Game

Tampa Bay hosted the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday, skating away with a 3-2 overtime win. Nick Perbix scored the game-winner to lift the Lightning to victory in that one.

Injuries, Injuries, Injuries

This past weekend was absolutely brutal for Jersey’s Team on the injury front. Jack Hughes left Friday night’s game against the Blackhawks with what appeared to be an arm injury. The latest on that:

So it seems the worst-case scenario was avoided, but Hughes will still be on the shelf for a while.

Meanwhile, Jonas Siegenthaler broke his foot in the Saturday game against the Canucks, so now he will be out for a long time himself. Add these two players to a list that includes Dougie Hamilton, Ondrej Palat, and Timo Meier, and the Devils are looking like a MASH unit these days. Meier appears to be the closest to returning according to head coach Lindy Ruff, but who knows when exactly that will be and how effective he will be upon returning.

To that end, here are some of the roster moves New Jersey made in response to the latest rash of injuries:

I couldn’t find any line combinations from the Devils’ latest practice, as it appeared they worked mostly on individual drills and power plays. So we’ll have to wait to get that info.

For as lucky as the Devils got with injuries last season, regression in that luck has hit them hard in 2023-24. Despite all those injuries though, New Jersey is still in the thick of the playoff race though, only one point back of the final wild card spot in the east. Speaking of which...

Four-Point Game, Non-Division Style

The team that the Devils are chasing for that final spot? That would be the Tampa Bay Lightning, tonight’s opponent. The Devils have 44 points, and the Bolts have 45. However, New Jersey has a whopping four games in hand on Tampa Bay, so the Devils are very much in the driver’s seat in that regard.

Usually big four-point games (getting two points yourself while depriving your opponent of two points on the other side) are almost always games against division rivals. Not so this evening, as Tampa Bay is the Atlantic Division team the Devils need to concern themselves with the most at the moment. A regulation win tonight would vault New Jersey past Tampa Bay in the standings, AND the Devils would maintain their four games in hand. Needless to say, it’s a big matchup tonight.

Is The Reign Over?

The Tampa Bay Lightning have been the gold standard of NHL franchises for a long time now. Since the 2013-14 season, they have made the playoffs in nine of 10 seasons, won the Eastern Conference four times, and of course won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2019-20 and 2020-21. But all good things must come to an end, and it appears the Lightning might be a fading dynasty. Their stars are getting up there in age, and their depth has been slowly depleted over the years thanks to the salary cap (hello Ondrej Palat).

This is a franchise that expects to compete for the Stanley Cup every single season, and yet they’re barely hanging onto a wild card spot at the moment. Obviously they’re still a good team, but good is a far cry from their once lofty perch atop the league.

Nikita Kucherov is the one player on the team that is still producing like a superstar. The Russian winger enters tonight with 28 goals and 67 points in 41 games played. That equates to a point per game pace of 1.63, which over an 82 game season would come out to a little less than 134 points. He remains the heart and soul of the Lightning offense, and the Devils would be wise to mark him carefully this evening.

Brayden Point is next on the scoring list for the Lightning, coming in at exactly a point per game with 42 points in 42 games. Certainly great production, but not the superstar heights we’ve seen from Point in seasons past. Victor Hedman, long the rock of Tampa Bay’s blueline, is next with 39 points in 40 games, and longtime Lightning captain Steven Stamkos rounds out the top four with 38 points in 39 games.

Again, this is all great production. But Tampa Bay is used to more from their superstars. And now that the team has very little depth thanks to salary cap casualties over the years, the leading men need to step up even more. Only Kucherov has managed to do that so far.

Tampa Bay’s other superstar, Andrei Vasilevskiy, hasn’t exactly been himself this season either. He missed the first month and a half of the season due to offseason back surgery, making his debut on November 24th. In 19 games thus far, he is 10-9-0 with an .896 sv% and a 2.95 GAA. It is jarring to see such mediocre numbers from a player who was one of the best goalies in the league (if not the very best) for a long time. Perhaps Vasilevskiy is still recovering from his offseason surgery, but whatever the case may be, assuming he gets the start tonight, the Devils won’t be going up against a goalie at the top of his game right now.

Your Take

The Devils are back after a lot of days off. How do you think they will respond to the latest run of injuries? Who do you think will be inserted into the lineup, and where? What do you make of the Lightning this season? As always, thanks for reading!