- Well. Andrei Vasilevskiy isn’t having the best season, but you usually have to put more than 24 shots on him to win. Even with the Lightning netminder swimming in net and allowing three goals, the Devils didn’t test him until the third period.
- After a first period that recorded few prime scoring chances, the Lightning struck first in the second, scoring a pair of goals to send the Devils into the third down 2-0.
- Though the Devils registered three goals in the final period, they didn’t give themselves enough time to work with. Had there been a full fourth period, perhaps the Devils might’ve come back to tie it and win. Alas, hockey games are usually 60 minutes, and Tampa Bay’s four-goal period (including two empty netters in the final three minutes) staved off the Devils comeback attempt yet again.
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Not a lot happened through the early first period, such that if you watch the extended game highlights, the recap doesn’t actually begin until the eighth minute. It would turn out that not a lot became the theme of the night for the Devils, as they were unable to mount much sustained offensive pressure through the first two periods. There were a few chances in close on Vasilevskiy, but they were one-offs and once again the Devils exhibited a severe lack of follow-through on offense. Lack of follow-through has been a theme for them this season, both on the back end and offensively.
Vitek Vanecek did make a big save at the end of the first period on Darren Raddysh to keep the score tied at zero. As the Devils have also been guilty of surrendering late, back-breaking goals, I was pleased to see the struggling Vanecek challenge at the top of the crease to glove the shot. When a goalie’s confidence is low, sometimes the natural inclination is to sink back into the crease, but Vanecek did well challenging the shooter. What I didn’t like was that Raddysh got the puck at all. All five Devils skaters on the ice were at or below the hash-marks, leaving the defense wide open. If that had been Victor Hedman instead of Darren Raddysh (who I like as a defender just fine), that might have turned out very differently.
Everything doesn’t come back to the swarm defense, but that play is a good example of why it’s just not working for the Devils right now—either with their personnel or with the way it’s being taught. With the swarm, the idea is to, well, swarm the puck carrier and overwhelm them with pure numbers. You shut them down from moving or passing and retake possession. Theoretically. Instead, the Devils are not doing that. They’re there, hanging out with the puck carrier like it’s a tailgate, but they’re not actually doing anything. They’re not knocking them off the puck. They’re not preventing passes. And when the attacking player inevitably makes a pass out of the swarm, the attackers have between two and three open players to collect the pass.
The Devils made it to the second period tied 0-0.
To the surprise of very few, the Devils surrendered the first goal of the game when the Lightning struck just a minute into the second period. Vanecek made the initial save off a hard shot from the far point, but the rebound kicked out hard to the near point. Timo Meier was unable to recover quick enough to pressure Victor Hedman on the point, who let loose a quick slapper through traffic. Nick Paul managed to get a stick on it in front of Vanecek, tipping the puck past the netminder and in for the Lightning’s first goal of the night. You could potentially point the blame at Vanecek for the big rebound, but I’m not going to. I don’t think that goal was his fault. Rebounds do happen, especially when shots come low to the ice. Rather, I would’ve liked to see either Meier or Bratt find the rebound and pressure the point sooner, and also for Kevin Bahl to clear Paul from the front of the net. There were two Lightning players in front of Vanecek with free sticks and inside body positions. Two of them—when there were five Devils skating below the tops of the circles. Hedman was also completely free at the point, much like Raddysh was for the initial shot on Vanecek, and before at the end of the first period. You cannot leave the front of the net unprotected and allow defenders like Hedman free reign on the point.
It was also Hedman’s 700th career point.
The Devils managed to kill a Lightning power play shortly after. It was a near thing—Tampa almost scored—but Vanecek made it across the crease in time to save a Steven Stamkos one-timer, keeping the Devils in the game.
Unfortunately, Vanecek’s good work came to naught just minutes later through no fault of his own. The Lightning’s next goal bore similarities from the first goal and other previous defensive breakdowns by the Devils. Five Devils floated down to the slot after Vanecek turned aside a shot from the point. They were, ostensibly, covering the two Tampa Bay players in front. Here’s a screenshot from that play:
So, theoretically, they should’ve been able to collect the rebound, right? Wrong. Paul won the puck battle and got the pass back to Hedman, clear on the point again. The veteran defenseman had all the time in the world. But his slapshot never made it all the way to Vanecek. Instead, it broke Bratt’s stick and trickled into the crease, and three Devils were out-positioned by one (1) Brandon Hagel, who tapped the puck past Vanecek after the goalie stopped him once.
It just wasn’t good enough.
By the halfway point of the game, the score was 2-0 and the shots were 20-8, both in favor of Tampa Bay. Vanecek made another stellar save off a pristine passing play by the Lightning players through the slot, once again keeping his team down by only two. If a picture is worth a thousand words, here is another screenshot:
Dawson Mercer split the defenders and managed to create a short breakaway in on Vasilevskiy just before the end of the second period, but the Lightning netminder—who had seen only one shot in the last twelve minutes—stayed with him as he went to the backhand.
The Devils were not able to score through forty minutes and entered the third period down 2-0.
They got on the board early in the third period, bringing them within one. Nico Hischier stopped the puck from exiting the zone, wheeled back into the slot, and shot for the rebound off Vasilevskiy’s left pad. Palat was there for the rebound, and he batted the puck past the goalie to get the Devils on the board.
The Lightning came right back to restore their two-goal lead, however. Vanecek once again made the first save, sprawling to stop Nic Perbix in a prime scoring position. But Stamkos was there and had inside position on the Devils defenders, and he slipped the puck past Vanecek on the rebound. Here’s another screenshot:
Vanecek stopped several more dangerous attempts on an ensuing Tampa Bay power play, then made a big breakaway save around the halfway mark of the period. With the Devils down just 3-1, those were crucial blocks.
Jesper Bratt brought them within one goal just after Vanecek’s breakaway save. Hischier won the faceoff in the Devils’ zone, but Bratt deserves most of the credit here: it was nearly a singlehanded effort. He dodged the Lightning defenders end-to-end and snuck the shot through Vasilevskiy, getting some small aid from the hockey gods as the puck trickled just over the goal line.
Jesparilla celebration down in Tampa. pic.twitter.com/a2eNJEDb33— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) January 28, 2024
Just as he did before the goal, Vanecek made a game-saving stop after the goal to prevent both Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov from taking advantage of the Devils’ woeful crease protection. Then he dove to stop a shorthanded two-on-one opportunity not long after.
“Holy &$@%, Vitek!” - atNJDevils group chat. pic.twitter.com/ibW70S6kHy— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) January 28, 2024
They repaid him with a goal—a goal against, that is. Vanecek played the puck behind the net to Bahl in the corner. Bahl fed Brayden Point with a perfect pass into the slot. Point, a sniper, did not miss the empty net. Bahl didn’t take another shift in the remaining six minutes.
Had to do it to 'em ♂️ pic.twitter.com/piSyv3uy3g— Tampa Bay Lightning (@TBLightning) January 28, 2024
The Devils pulled the goalie with about three minutes remaining. They needed two and got one quickly: Nemec took a slap shot from the blue line that careened through traffic until it settled onto Toffoli’s stick at the back door. Toffoli chipped it over Vasilevskiy’s glove to bring them once more within one goal. But if you’ve watched the Devils this season, you know the give up empty-net goals. Tampa Bay would score two of them before it was over.
The first empty netter came from a turnover. Luke Hughes made a lazy outlet pass with the extra attacker that was intercepted by Kucherov, who fed Hagel for the goal. The second empty netter resulted from frankly a lackadaisical attack by the Lightning that nobody made a real effort to stop.
So the Devils lost 6-3. The game was closer than the score told. But the 6-3 result reflected what they deserved tonight.
- Vanecek has not been good this season. But when he has been good, the Devils often wasted those efforts. I’ve thought that a good goalie would do a lot to mask (as in, with tape) the Devils’ defensive deficiencies, but tonight that would not have been the case. They had a good goalie tonight. They just hung him out on the drying racks and salted him for good measure.
- Some guy once said that instead of skating to where the puck is, he skated to where the puck was going to be. I think he was called Dwayne Gretzman or something. Anyway, that seems like pretty smart advice, and it’s one the Devils should learn to follow. Tonight we had between three and five Devils players skating to where the puck was, which became a large problem when you recognize that the puck rarely stays in one area for long.
- The Devils rostered an AHL team today. Without Haula, their offensive depth was far past the point of “depleted.” Because of that, I’ll excuse their late start offensively and some of their issues defensively. But really, those AHL tweeners and youngsters weren’t the culprits for the bad zone defense. John Marino, Timo Meier, and Kevin Bahl were all among the worst players on the ice, beating out Willman, Dowling, and Hatakka in his twelfth NHL game. With the possible exception of Bahl, Marino and Meier should both know better. They are better. We know they’re better than that because we’ve seen better from them. Meier excelled in San Jose. So what gives?
- It took a while for the offense to take flight, as has been the case so many times for them this season, but they eventually scored three goals. With the way Vanecek played, three goals should’ve done the trick. But their defensive zone play was so poor, three goals and stellar goaltending wasn’t enough. They’re burning their games in hand.
- A few Devils deserved better tonight—Vanecek among them—but the team let them down.
- I would be more willing to let the Devils off the hook and write the season off as cursed and injury-ridden if they weren’t losing due to systemic problems that have plagued them since the beginning of the season. Whether they have one Justin Dowling or ten, they’ve been losing due to the same faults and the same lapses for months now. I’m all out of goalies to blame.
Let ‘er rip. What did you think of the game? Did the Devils ever have a shot at this one? And are you all right with calling the curtains on this season, saying ‘It’s not our year,’ or is it endemic of a larger problem (be it roster construction, coaching, leadership, etc)?