So tonight was our playoff ‘rematch’ with Tampa after they wiped the floor with us in five relatively easy games six months ago. Sure, it was nice to make the playoffs and Game 3 at the Rock was the best hockey memory in the last several years as a Devils fan but really the three playoff games in Tampa showed just how far apart the two teams were in skill level. Of course regular season hockey isn’t always the same as playoff hockey – just look at the fact we were 3-0 against the Lightning last regular season. More importantly, the hope going into tonight was to get our season high seven-game road trip off to a good start against a Tampa team without top defenseman Victor Hedman.
After about five minutes it looked like one of the 2017-18 regular season matchups, as the Devils got off to a fast start with Miles Wood and Travis Zajac combining for the game’s first two goals, finally giving the Devils some non-first line production. Wood’s goal was punctuated by an exhuberant celebration and the team looked engaged in the game early. That momentum carried over to the line’s next shift when Zajac scored on a partial breakaway. Leading two-nil after five minutes it looked for a fleeting moment like this could be a reprise of the Caps home opener earlier in the month.
Then reality smacked us in the face and Tampa asserted their skill level while the Devils resumed their skittish, sloppy play that’s been too prevalent the last couple of weeks. Still, there was no way I saw a 2-0 game turning into a 3-8 trainwreck in the span of two periods’ worth of time from the early first to the early third. Sure every team has at least a handful of those type of games, the Lightning themselves had one against Arizona a few nights ago. However, the timing of this game coming after three other uneven to desultory efforts in the last four games is alarming. Especially against a team that everyone knows you have to be on point against.
Things looked bad enough when Tampa tied the game before the end of the first period, but an early second period goal, then back-to-back penalties by Blake Coleman (double-minor) and Zajac put the nail in the coffin when the defanged PK allowed two more goals to put the game almost out of reach at 5-2. Kyle Palmieri’s goal at the end of the second gave the Devils an illusory chance going into the third but three lightning-quick goals at the beginning of the third turned the game into a complete and utter embarassment. How embarassing? After Keith Kinkaid was pulled allowing the seventh goal, poor Cory Schneider allowed a goal on his first shot faced of the season for the eighth goal of the night.
At that point I saw something I’ve never seen before, a timeout with a kick-butt rant called by coach John Hynes at 8-3 in the third period with the Devils already having given up 40+ shots and the game clearly over. Normally the kick-butt timeouts come earlier in the game and when the score is closer, but the giveup in the third period and lack of engagement in the game throughout was alarming and needed to be addressed on the spot. Clearly the Devils gave up after the sixth goal if not sooner…it looked like it got flattened with a Mike Tyson right hand. Who knows, maybe that was the team’s rock bottom. It better have been or things are going to get a lot worse before it gets better. It’s up to this team to decide how they want to respond going forward, starting with a game in Detroit on Thursday night that is as must-win as an early November game gets at this point. Even more importantly it’s a must get back on track in terms of the team’s effort and compete level.