Devils strike back against Tampa in wild win

In a Game 3 that had violent swings of momentum – and at the end a little violence on the ice – the Devils once again showed the mettle that powered their drive to the postseason, rallying from two deficits and scoring four unanswered third period goals to gain a vital 5-2 win in front of a sellout crowd at the Rock, getting back into their first-round series after two road losses in Tampa Bay.  While the game’s first star was no surprise (again Taylor Hall after another transcendent multi-point effort), there were plenty of other unexpected heroes last night as well.

It’s hard to know just where to start this recap since there were so many different aspects to last night’s game, so let’s just start at the beginning with some surprising returns to the lineup – one from injured Marcus Johansson, who was finally cleared to play after nearly three months on the shelf following his latest concussion, and another from Cory Schneider who got a shot for redemption after a poor 2018 which led to him only starting two games since March 8 (one of them being the meaningless season finale in Washington).  Keeping true to his word after a dissapointing Game 2, coach John Hynes made multiple changes to the lineup, not only sitting stretch run hero Keith Kinkaid after two games in Tampa where the puck stopped hitting him, but also benching defenseman Mirco Mueller and the dissapointing Michael Grabner – who’s officially a trade deadline bust now and no doubt one of the players Hynes was talking about when he said some guys didn’t deserve to be in the lineup after Game 2.

I wasn’t exactly overjoyed over keeping Ben Lovejoy in the lineup but it’s obvious Hynes feels he can’t do without his veteran presence on the blueline in the postseason, and I already stated my reservations about going with Cory in a must-win game in my last blog.  Beyond those choices, I was even more mystified over inserting Drew Stafford as the twelfth forward.  Not only has Stafford been totally unproductive since the season’s first two weeks but having him in over guys like Brian Gibbons and Jesper Bratt weakened both the penalty kill and overall team speed.  I didn’t exactly have a lot of confidence in those moves after the game’s first 20:42, where the Devils essentially tried to play a road first period instead of trying to take it to the Lightning early and get some momentum with the home crowd ready to rock.  Instead they seemingly played a very cautious game, and their lack of footspeed seemed to be a hinderance early.  After an overall meh first period where they did pick up their play later on, an ill-timed penalty from Andy Greene doomed the Devils to an early second-period deficit when once again the PK was victimized, this time from an Alex Killorn deflection.

Despite this team’s resilience all year I really thought they bought the farm after Killorn’s goal, the Lightning had completely taken the crowd out of the game and a veteran team with playoff experience looked like they were squeezing the life out of the Devils as well.  Ironically enough, it was one of our few good penalty kills of the series that finally turned the tide midway through the period after John Moore again was a total rockhead, committing a high-stick penalty following a turnover.  An inspired kill led by Blake Coleman (who had a goal disallowed after checking a Lightning defender into goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy) got some needed momentum back and it was – who else? – Hall that capitalized on the next even strength shift, one-timing a deflected Brian Boyle pass past Vasilevskiy and looking to the sky with the same sense of relief that most Devil fans were no doubt feeling all while celebrating the goal.

Of course there was still a long way to go before the Devils got out of the woods completely.  In a game dominated by special teams (with a total of twelve power plays and one four-on-four nearly taking up half the sixty minutes) it was yet another late penalty in a period, this time from Coleman which once again proved costly early in the third after Steven Stamkos got open for a patented wrister from the faceoff circle.  Despite being in position for it, the puck squirted through Cory for what again looked like a killer third period goal.  It does need to be said that Cory’s 27 saves in the first two periods held the team in the game during those tense moments, it was perhaps unfair that I was annoyed with him after not getting that one but also indiciative of the tenseness of the situation and the lack of equity Cory had after his poor play could have kept us out of the playoffs.  I was envisioning another hard-luck 2-1 or 3-1 loss that would confirm the black cloud that’s hung over Cory as a Devil.

If our own PK has been awful throughout the series, our power play has been nearly as bad and the insertion into the lineup of Stafford (who played over five minutes on the man advantage) didn’t help one iota as the Devils failed to convert on their six normal power plays.  However, back to back penalties on the Lightning early in the third gave the Devils a golden opportunity to take momentum back on a minute-long 5-on-3, which they did with a Will Butcher blast from the blueline tying the game and getting the crowd rocking again.  Then midway through the third period came a potentially decisive moment when Schneider cramped up during a seemingly innocuous rush but despite being down and nearly out, he still made a pair of critical saves during that sequence as the Lightning’s failure to put the puck in the net there would prove costly to them later on.  As did their inability to put pressure on Cory afterward, when the goalie stayed in despite clearly being in pain from the cramps.

New Jersey played its best single period of the series in the third, outshooting the Lightning 20-8 and got Cory’s back after he had theirs for much of the night.  Still needing a goal to get out in front, it was once again Hall with the big play, this time feeding Stefan Noesen whose one-timer somehow beat Vasilevskiy from beyond the faceoff circle on a sharp angle.  My thought was it looked like one of those one-timers you would score on in NHL94 (the video game).  However it went in, Noesen’s goal at 12:55 proved to be the game-winner and yet another crucial goal the unheralded third-liner’s scored this season.  Despite playing a solid, emotional third period there was bound to be late drama and a rare bad penalty from Hall gave the Lightning one last power play chance to potentially stick it to us.

I was surprised Bolts coach Jon Cooper didn’t pull Vasilevsky and try to set up a 6-on-4 sooner than he did.  Despite the risk of having an empty net without icing coming into play I figured they’d try to put pressure on our normally laughable empty net defense.  Still, maybe the Devils just weren’t going to be denied in the third period last night no matter what Cooper did, and fittingly it was Coleman – one of the four best Devils on the night – whose clear had eyes and was just hard enough to get to the empty net for the clincher with fifty-eight seconds remaining.  Cooper left the net empty long enough for us to get an even more improbable goal, from Lovejoy nearly 200 feet away from the net, when his clear somehow stayed true and made the score a flattering 5-2.

Even that goal didn’t end the action on the night though, as a melee broke out mostly from the Lightning acting like faux tough guys the way they did for much of the third period when they committed a string of chippy penalties and one more egregious one that wasn’t even called – when defenseman Victor Hedman speared prized rookie Nico Hischier in the…jewels.  All the general chippiness and typical postseason sore loser goonery culminated in no fewer than ten misconduct penalties – five for each team – and an epic verbal punking from Boyle of Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev as both were being escorted off the premises.  It was all over but the shouting at that point, and a celebration six years in the waiting – as the Devils’ last playoff win came in Game 5 of the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals against the Kings, seemingly another lifetime ago.

Yet it wasn’t another lifetime ago for Travis Zajac, one of the two remaining holdovers from that team, who deserves special notice for his game last night.  In a must-win situation, Zajac played a team-high 24:23, including a whopping 12:50 in special teams time (playing nearly eight of those minutes on the power play and the rest shorthanded).  Not only did his line shut down the formidable Lightning contingent at even strength but Zajac also wound up a +2 and did exceptional work in the faceoff dot, winning 23 of 34 faceoffs.  Both numbers are astonishing for any game, much less an NHL playoff regulation game.  When I referred to the four best Devils last night, I was referring to Hall, Schneider, Zajac and Coleman – though the latter two weren’t named stars (Noesen got the third star for scoring the winner), all four were vital to the team’s success in Game 3, and you need those kind of contributions come postseason, both from your veteran leaders and from gritty role players like Coleman.

While some of the pressure’s off now after avoiding the first sweep in franchise history,  things will only go from tense to intense in Game 4.  If the Devils are to even this series up heading back to Tampa they’re going to need Cory to be healthy and just as on point as he was in Game 3.  Ideally the Devils are going to have to shut down the deadly Tampa power play at some point if they want to stay in the series.  Giving up five PP goals in three games is a recipe for disaster against an offense that can turn it on at any moment, but at least we improved at even strength in Game 3, giving up zero 5-on-5 goals after giving up three in Games 1 and 2 each.  While I doubt Hynes makes any lineup changes off a win, he’s really going to have to figure out how to solve the Lightning PP – if that means taking Stafford or one of the other fourth liners out (Stafford, Boyle and Miles Wood each played less than six minutes at even strength) for someone that can help the PK or just making tactical changes.

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