The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (24-19-3) at the Tampa Bay Lightning (26-18-5).
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSGSN
The Wild Card is Not a Reliable Option
Presently, the Lightning stand third in their division with 57 points in 49 games. This should serve another reminder to the very-smart-online people who gave Tampa low odds to make the playoffs that Tampa will never be put down as long as they have Kucherov, Stamkos, Point, and Hedman. They are 8-2-0 in their last 10 games, and they have not allowed more than three goals since January 6, when they gave up seven to the Boston Bruins. Since then, Tampa has gone 7-1-0, including their previous overtime win over the Devils. This means that the Devils’ best bet of making the playoffs is securing a top three spot in the Metropolitan Division. The Flyers are five points ahead with three more games played, and are 5-5-0 in their last 10. Their second half figures to be rougher than the first. Detroit also has four more points in two more games played, but at this point I think they will contend for the playoffs to the very end. I do not think Toronto will slip out of the first Wild Card, either.
So the Devils have to win tonight: and not in a “we have to catch Tampa way.” The Devils just need the points. It’s a necessity: they have gone 3-5-1 since Jack Hughes went down with an injury. If they can push that to 4-5-1 going into the All-Star Break, I will say that’s not too bad for missing the team’s top scorer. 3-6-1 would be ugly.
An Adventure for a Young Defense
Tonight, the Devils will face Nikita Kucherov, who is on pace for about 140 points (he currently has 32 goals and 51 assists). Brayden Point, Victor Hedman, and Steven Stamkos have hung right around point-per-game paces, with Brandon Hagel not far behind. While the scoring behind them is not particularly strong, the production at the top is good enough to give Tampa the fourth-highest goals scored total in the league.
The Devils only have two defensemen on the roster with over 200 games played in Colin Miller and John Marino. Kevin Bahl is third with 112 games, and Luke Hughes is the fourth most experienced blueliner on the team with 48 NHL games played. I think the Devils need to be certain to have their most experienced defenseman in Colin Miller face the Tampa top line. I do not want to see Simon Nemec chasing Nikita Kucherov. Otherwise, I wonder if Tampa — a team with a penchant for getting physical, grimy, and dirty — is a good matchup for Daniil Misyul, who played a lot of KHL games before coming over to the AHL this season. However, I imagine they would have to go 11-7 for that, and I do not think Justin Dowling gets removed from the lineup after his goal on Thursday night (unless Haula misses the game, which we’ll get to below).
Possible Absences in Ruff and Haula
In case you missed the game against Carolina, Lindy Ruff was hit in the head with a puck out of play. While trainers, officials, and players checked on him to make sure he did not need to go to the locker room, Lindy toughed the second period out before being held out for the third. In his absence, Travis Green ran the bench. During yesterday’s practice, Lindy was again not on the ice.
Lindy Ruff will not be on the ice for #NJDevils practice today.— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) January 26, 2024
He is being kept off the ice as a precaution after he was struck in the head by a puck during last night's game.
On the player side, Erik Haula was absent from practice yesterday due to personal reasons. As a result, Stein noted that the lines seemed a bit unclear — hopefully that’s an indication that they expect Haula to be back for the game and that they did not want to mess up their chemistry by skating with altered lines. If Haula is not available for the game, that would likely mean Justin Dowling plays fourth line center, with Tierney moving up to the third line, with a rotating double-shift at 4LW. I do hope all is well with Haula, but it would be very tough to compete without him right now.
On the Tampa side, they are still missing Erik Cernak, who was injured in their last game against the Devils. They are also missing Haydn Fleury, Mikhail Sergachev, and Tanner Jeannot — though they were all out for their previous matchup. Their only new injury is from fourth line forward Austin Watson, who went down with a lower-body injury on January 21 in Detroit and was placed on injured reserve. Watson plays his game on the edge, so I will not exactly miss him. However, his apparent replacement in Mitchell Chaffee, who turned 26 yesterday, had two points in his fourth NHL game on Thursday: that was his second game for Tampa and his first since December. I think Tierney has done a good job lately of not letting fourth liners dictate play against him, so hopefully that bottom six scoring does not continue for Tampa.
What do you think of tonight’s game? Can they win? Will Vitek or Daws be in net? How will this team respond if Lindy is not behind the bench? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading.