It was their first game in quite a while. For the first time since 2012, the New Jersey Devils officially returned to the NHL Playoffs on Thursday night in Tampa Bay. With a cool slogan of #NowWeRise and a nice ad campaign with Mr. Devil Ken Daneyko declaring, “We’re back where we belong,” which could have been the lyrics to a linkin Park song, they are playoff ready.
For most of the younger Devils, it’s a new experience. So they’re learning what it takes to win a postseason game let alone a first round series against the top seeded Lightning. What they gained in a tough 5-2 loss in Game One is that it’s very different to beat a good opponent in the playoffs.
While it would be nice to put some stock in going 3-0-0 versus the Bolts during the regular season, it doesn’t mean a thing. There’s so much more intensity during the playoffs. Every shift matters. Every mistake. That was magnified last night with the Devils making some costly errors that led to Lightning goals.
One thing stood out from listening to Devils coach John Hynes prior to the start of the best-of-seven first round series. Tampa doesn’t need a lot of chances to score. Never was that more true than in Game One.
Making his first postseason start, Keith Kinkaid was hung out to dry by his teammates who left the front of the net wide open. Very uncharacteristic of this team’s DNA. The Bolts took full advantage burying their opportunities.
Following a nervous start in which the top seed had them on their heels with Kinkaid making some timely saves to keep it scoreless, the Devils started to find their game. They generated some good chances off forecheck pressure, forcing Andrei Vasilevskiy to be good. They were in good shape for most of the first until a couple of miscues hurt big time.
If they thought just shutting down the dangerous trio of J.T. Miller, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov was enough, they were sadly mistaken. The thing that makes the Lightning tough is the scoring depth with proven playoff performers Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat doing a number on the Devils. They combined for two goals and three assists factoring in on the game’s first three goals.
With five minutes left in the opening period, first it was Palat who introduced himself by getting free in the slot for a easy finish from Johnson and former Ranger Ryan McDonagh. He had too much time and space which gave Kinkaid little chance.
If they did some positive things in the period trailing only by one, the Devils forgot to play the final shift. It cost them another goal. With the defense running around, Brayden Point and Palat combined to find a wide open Johnson alone for his 22nd career postseason goal. Mirco Mueller lost a battle behind the net and both Ben Lovejoy and star Taylor Hall didn’t pick up Johnson in front. It was inexcusable. The poor coverage put them down two with under 29 seconds left.
Despite only being outshot 13-11, the Devils found themselves playing from behind in enemy territory. That’s never what you want in your first playoff game on the road.
Miles Wood is also new to this. The second-year grinding forward is a important player. He is on the second line with Pavel Zacha and Patrick Maroon. He has to play feisty to be effective. A meaningless slash to Dan Girardi five seconds into the second period off the draw isn’t what he had in mind.
It didn’t take long for the Lightning to make it 3-0. They got a bit of a fortunate bounce when Palat attempted a pass that Mueller accidentally chipped across the crease right to Yanni Gourde, who buried a power play goal into a open side. It was a rough night for Mueller, who was caught on for three goals against.
Let’s give credit to the Devils for not giving up. They showed some heart nearly rallying back from a three goal deficit. All year, they’ve been resilient. It was again evident that despite some mistakes, the effort was still there. Vasilevskiy made some pointblank stops in tight to keep the Devs off the scoreboard until Hall broke through for his first postseason goal in his first playoff game. He got plenty of help from a unlikely source when Palat passed a puck right up the middle to him. Hall quickly shot and beat Vasilevskiy to cut it to 3-1.
They kept coming in the third. A iffy slashing minor on Miller allowed New Jersey to get within one with plenty of time left. On a wonderfully constructed play, Hall faked shot to get Anton Stralman down to his knees. He then fit in a perfect shot pass for a neat Travis Zajac redirection for a crucial power play goal that suddenly made it 3-2 with 10:25 remaining. Rookie Will Butcher picked up his first career postseason assist on the play.
Unfortunately, that was as close as they would get. A bad turnover from Maroon allowed the Lightning to speed through the neutral zone in transition with Gourde setting up Alex Killorn for a goal through traffic with Kinkaid screened. The quick response by Tampa came 2:39 later to restore a two goal lead.
The Devils were unable to sustain enough pressure to make it interesting late. They only wound up with five shots in the third while the Lightning had a dozen including a Kucherov empty netter that concluded the scoring.
The final shots were 32-31 Tampa. The final hits were 36-35 Devils. They competed. Tampa had 10 takeaways to the Jersey’s four. Blocked shots were also close with 16 for the Devs and 15 for the Bolts.
What they’ll need to do better for Game Two on Saturday after 3 PM is play smarter. Tighten up. Get back to playing the kind of Devils hockey that got them back in. If they can, there’s no reason they can’t return to Newark with a split for what will be a electric atmosphere on Monday night.