After last Sunday’s big win over Carolina got the Devils a share of the division lead, there was always going to be the potential for a reality check this week when the NHL – in its infinite wisdom – decided to give the Devils their entire season series with Tampa Bay in one six-day stretch. Oh and by the way, we’re also giving you another game down in Sunrise against a team in a life and death playoff battle in the middle of that six-day stretch as well.
In the end the results of this week were mixed, to put it succinctly. Great if your only goal out of the week was to have all your top players stay healthy and not embarrass yourselves in a de facto mini-playoff series with a veteran Lightning team, lousy if your goal was to keep pace with the Hurricanes and wound the pesky Panthers’ playoff hopes while we were at it.
Sure, the Devils are still only a point back of Carolina after a 1-2-1 week overall but now the Canes have two games in hand following an emotional win in Winnipeg in the wake of talented winger Andrei Svechnikov’s season-ending knee injury, and a dramatic comeback against the Flyers after scoring the tying goal with .3 left in regulation and winning in the first half-minute of OT. That thirty-second shift from zero points to two in Philly could prove decisive in the division race.
Of course, that’s ultimately a secondary concern to the Devils’ own performance and injury report. Let’s get the bad of this week out of the way first – Saturday night in Sunrise was clearly one of the worst games this team’s played all year, especially on the road. Perhaps we were looking at this game as a nuisance in the middle of our three-game mini-series with Tampa, or more likely we just struggled to find the same gear with a team that needed the game more. Plus let’s face it, we’ve struggled with the Panthers all year long – albeit the other two games we played with them were just before Christmas when we were struggling in general during December.
If it wasn’t for Akira Schmid’s spectacular 37-save performance, the Devils wouldn’t have even had a shot on Saturday, much less a 2-0 lead in the third period before the roof fell in with three quick Panther goals in the span of two and a half minutes of the third. That three-goal outburst basically decided the game, albeit a game we never really deserved to be winning in the first place. Hopefully we won’t be seeing the Panthers again anytime soon (especially with their old-school penchant of playing physically dirty hockey), although it remains a distinct possibility if we do win the division they could be a team we play in the first round. At the moment, it seems like a three-horse race between them, the Islanders and the struggling Penguins for the two wild card spots.
At the moment, the Panthers game was a sideshow to what was more a Tampa week, with back-to-back matchups at the Rock on Tuesday and Thursday before concluding a two-game Florida swing with another matchup against the Lightning in Tampa last night. I would say Tuesday was a letdown after the adrenaline-induced win over the Hurricanes on Sunday except the Devils actually started pretty well in the first period, with Damon Severson getting the first goal and Ryan Graves doubling the Devils’ lead…until a dubious offside challenge overturned the goal, and seemingly the momentum of the game.
Maybe it would have been a different story Tuesday if Vitek Vanecek hadn’t followed his brilliant return to form on Sunday with another dud of a game, allowing multiple stoppable goals as the Lightning surged past the Devils with a shorthanded goal to tie the game in the first, then three goals in the second period culminating in a last-second tally from Nikita Kucherov.
From there, Tampa did to us what we did to the Canes last Sunday in the third period, put a three-goal lead to bed (worst lead in hockey my fanny, Maven!). Our regulation loss coupled with the Hurricanes’ win in Winnipeg put them back in front, basically washing away Sunday’s game in the span of 48 hours. As much as I wanted to believe Vanecek’s game last Sunday was a sign he’d gotten out of his slump, Tuesday seemed further confirmation that Vanecek – who’d recently passed his career high in games started – has been running out of gas down the stretch, a real concern in terms of who’s going to play in the playoffs and who should play.
In the near term with the four games in six nights, I had little doubt Schmid would play two of the next three regardless of Vitek’s game on Tuesday. Sure enough, it was Schmid in the pipes for the Thursday and Saturday games (a la last week) to give Vitek another long-ish break between starts. Schmid answered the bell in both games, as he has just about every time he’s been called upon this season. As good as Schmid was on Thursday though, the Devils started the game on the back heel when Ross Colton scored after barely a minute, and had to come from behind three separate times to tie the Lightning.
Perhaps most encouragingly, Thursday’s game seemed to be a breakout of sorts for Timo Meier, who’d been a fish out of water in part because for some reason the staff played him on his off wing. Putting him back on the right side Thursday was all the impetus he needed to have a two-goal night, including a late tying goal on the power play
For all intents and purposes, the game was an honorable draw that the Lightning got the extra point in after the skills competition. If anything, the Devils outplayed Tampa on Thursday but Andrei Vasilevsky was again a difference-maker for his team, making thirty-two saves in the game itself and another pair in the shootout. Still, three straight winless games this week including the Panther no-show on Saturday provided quite the backdrop for Sunday’s finale in Tampa.
If Saturday was one of our worst games of the season, Sunday was one of the best all things considered. Unfortunately, for the first part of the game it looked like December again, as goals from Kucherov and Alex Killorn gave Tampa a 2-0 lead against the run of play. Unlike Tuesday though, a shaky start from Vanecek didn’t shake the Devils, and Jesper Bratt responded with a goal just nine seconds after Killorn’s marker – putting the Devils back within one. For Bratt, that goal could well have been a spark considering his long personal slump (seven goals and one assist in his last eighteen games). Sure enough, Bratt followed that goal with another less than three minutes later to tie the game, and that goal was his 30th of the season – a personal first for the talented winger.
Less than three minutes after Bratt’s goal, captain Nico Hischier joined the party with his 30th goal of the season – also a personal first – giving the Devils an improbable lead less than six minutes after falling behind by two. It was the complete inverse of the third period in Sunrise the previous night, with us turning the two-goal lead on its head with three quick ones. Guess things really do even out over a long season.
From there the Devils mostly maintained control of the game, and even extended their lead in the third period from an unlikely source…recent callup (and ex-Lightning prospect) Nolan Foote scoring his first of the season. Foote was only in the lineup because of injuries to Miles Wood and Curtis Lazar, but he made his case for getting a longer look going forward even before the revenge goal in the third period.
Other than being forced to kill off a late third-period penalty, there was surprisingly little drama left in the game (despite being on the back end of a four-in-six, though so was Tampa) and Bratt sealed it with the empty-netter for a hat trick. At least he had some fun with it after, in what would look like a photoshop if I didn’t know better and see this on the TV when it happened:
Can’t say there’s much to complain about overall from the Lightning series. Three points out of six where we more or less outplayed them the last two games. Not that it’ll mean anything come playoffs, even the 2017-18 Devils went three-for-three against Tampa in the regular season before reality set in once the teams met in April. Still, you like to see them meet any challenge head on whether it’s in April or before it, and if last week was tough for us, the next few games will be a challenge for the Hurricanes as well, with two games against their nemesis the Rangers, followed by playing Toronto, Boston and Tampa.
Not that it’s easy for us, with a home game against the Wild on Tuesday followed by a back-to-back at Buffalo and home against Ottawa this weekend before the final two Battle of the Hudson games in the regular season with the Isles and Rangers next week. Of course winning a division isn’t supposed to be easy, as much as we made it look so in our heyday.