It’s hard to know how to start this piece after the Devils’ 5-3 playoff loss in Tampa put them in a big two-game hole against the top-seeded Lightning. If you want to look at a glass half-full, you could point to the fact the Devils were able to limit Tampa’s chances throughout Game 2 and dominated the last twenty-two minutes, sending a message to the heavily favored Lightning that this Devils team isn’t going away. Of course if you want to be glass half-empty you have to question certain lineup choices and why for two straight games this team’s made a slew of glaring mental mistakes. Not to mention it’s taken them falling behind by three goals in each game before the urgency factor kicked in, or they stopped worrying and started playing – however you want to psychoanalyze the team’s uneven performance the first two games.
Of course growing pains were to be expected with young players in the postseason for the first time, but you would have hoped the vets could carry the slack and lead the way. Instead the vets with playoff experience have been among the biggest culprits so far as up and down the lineup the first two games have been littered with unforced errors from guys you would hope wouldn’t make those kind of errors, many of which have wound up in the net. Tonight the gong show started with the miscommunication between Andy Greene and Damon Severson on Tampa’s first goal off a faulty line change in the opening twenty minutes – which granted was probably more on Severson for not covering the left side when Greene hadn’t gotten on the ice yet – but still that was a harbinger for a dreary Game 2.
A harbinger that was followed by a string of mental miscues in the second period which turned a deceptively tight game into a horror show. Starting with Ben Lovejoy’s rushed delay of game penalty in the second period which led to the tie-breaking goal to Kyle Palmieri’s selfish roughing penalty which led to another goal, and Sami Vatanen’s own-goal later on in the second period, it was a rough game for a lot of the ‘playoff-experienced’ guys. At 4-1 I even shut it off and turned on Colorado-Nashville for the remainder of the second period (before turning it back – but not really watching the third period). I can’t remember the last time I did that for a playoff game, but the gong show was just too depressing to watch. It looked like men against boys out there. Granted our shots on goal total was still favorable even early but if you watched the first period you could tell Tampa had a lot more pressure on our net than we did on theirs, we just got fortunate with some blocked shots and missed nets from Tampa.
Sure after it got to 5-1 things got mildly interesting with a late-second period goal from Vatanen, a third-period marker from Blake Coleman, some chippy play towards the end and some great saves from both goaltenders – a couple early in the period from Cory Schneider doing a rare relief turn and a few more from Andrei Vasilevskiy in the Tampa net that prevented us from making the game any closer (including a stop on a breakaway from Miles Wood). I get all that, and the Devils had their best period of the series in the third when they threw caution to the wind, attacked and kept plodders like Lovejoy off the ice. Still, all veteran hockey fans know or should know things tend to be different once a team gets a huge lead as the Devils have now found out in two straight games and that you’re not going to dominate a team like Tampa in the run of normal play.
I’m particularly skeptical that the Schneider you saw in the third period tonight is the one you’ll get in Game 3 if coach John Hynes does what a lot of people expect and start Cory down 2-0, after the clock seemingly struck midnight on Keith Kinkaid, who allowed nine goals in less than five periods of this series. Maybe it has, but nobody can deny the Devils aren’t in the playoffs without Kinkaid and while yes Cory played well in relief it’s a different story when you come in as the backup in a longshot effort and coming in as the starter with all the heat on you. Personally I feel Keith has still earned the first home start in the postseason but with a very short leash, but I’m bracing myself for the alternative being Cory with the very short leash. I just hope the sellout crowd doesn’t turn on Cory with the first goal scored on Monday since he hasn’t actually started a home game in over a month, before Kinkaid became a folk hero while Cory turned in an embarassing effort in San Jose and hasn’t been seen again till this afternoon.
Other lineup changes need to be considered for Game 3 as well. Perhaps Hynes went too mad scientist going with an 11 forward, 7 defense lineup for Game 2, one that hasn’t been employed in months. Taking out one of our leading PK guys in Brian Gibbons probably didn’t help against a dominant Lightning PP, which put up another two goals tonight. Granted Gibbons’ non-PK game has been crap lately but when the alternative is going 11-7 putting yet another struggling defenseman in the lineup? Very questionable, and the cloak and dagger manner the lineup was only announced just before gametime suggested some indecision…perhaps Hynes should have taken a page from Dave Hakstol in Philly who stubbornly did nothing after their Game 1 mutiliation in Pittsburgh and got rewarded with a big Game 2 road performance. And though he looked better later in the game (as did most of the team) I didn’t exactly get a lot of confidence back in Severson after that botched first goal against.
Yet, I don’t even think Severson should be the one to sit in Game 3 – I get Lovejoy has that ever valuable postseason experience, but experience doesn’t help you catch up to younger, faster skaters and the Lightning have been skating circles around the vets (including Andy Greene, who you’re not benching) all series. Trying to play slow-down tight-checking hockey really isn’t how this team is built and sure hasn’t worked against Tampa on the road so far. Now that the next two games are going to be back in Newark, the team needs to get a spark early in Game 3 and jump on the Lightning. Either put Gibbons back in for Lovejoy and shore up the PK or roll the dice on Jesper Bratt. Leave Severson in the lineup but get him away from John Moore and that radioactive pairing once and for all. If you have to, bump Will Butcher up to play with Severson and bump Moore down to play with Mueller. Either way you need your six best skating and offensive defensemen in the lineup. Continuing to give Lovejoy third-period shifts down multiple goals was laughable before the staff finally remembered it had seven D and did the math, sitting Lovejoy later on.
One thing’s for sure, this team needs to be more competitive in New Jersey than they were in Tampa if they want to ensure at least a return trip there and avoiding the first franchise sweep in playoff history. Even against a great team like the Lightning that would be a sour way to end what’s been an otherwise rewarding season. Clearly the recipe for Game 3 is get ahead and drop the hammer early, don’t let this talented team think it can finish things off quickly. Turn the series into hand-to-hand combat and let them know they’re in for a fight.