Photo Credit: Mark Fischgrund

Lightning give Devils hard knocks

The Devils have the rare opportunity to play the same team three times in the same week in what can be known as a schedule quirk. It isn’t just your run-of-the-mill team. It’s the Tampa Bay Lightning, who won two Stanley Cups in recent years and played in the Stanley Cup Final for three straight years.

This isn’t just your ordinary series. It is a test to see how far the Devils have come and how much work they have to do to be at the Lightning’s level.

After two games at Prudential Center, the Lightning have the upper hand against the Devils. They took a 4-1 victory on Tuesday night and celebrated a 4-3 victory in a shootout Thursday night after Alex Killorn and Ross Colton scored the Lightning’s goals during the shootout session. The two teams will play each other in the series finale on Sunday night at Amalie Arena.

This scorecard says the Lightning won in a TKO on Tuesday night and both teams played to a draw on Thursday night.

Still, it doesn’t take a hockey aficionado to realize the Devils have a ways to go before they can be in the Lightning’s league.

Yes, it was encouraging that the Devils showed some mettle in their second matchup against the Bolts, but the result was still the same. We can debate the merits of the shootout, but it doesn’t matter. The Lightning played like a veteran team that taught a young Devils team how to win in Thursday night’s game.

Sixty-nine seconds into the game, the Lightning struck first with a 1-0 lead when Colton finished the goal on a Mikhail Sergachev slapshot, delivering a fast and furious statement.

When the Lightning needed a meaningful goal, it was future Hall of Famer Steve Stamkos that delivered twice. Stamkos fired a shot on a Pierre-Edouard Bellemare feed that would give the Devils a 2-1 lead with 1:48 remaining in the second period. That goal came after the Lightning killed off a 5-on-3 penalty.

The Devils couldn’t enjoy Timo Meier tying the game at 2 in the third period. It was Stamkos scoring on a slapshot that would give the Lightning a 3-2 lead 15:13 into the third period.

Stunningly, Stamkos did not score in a shootout when he had that opportunity.

In a shootout, it was the Lightning that got the two shootout goals while the Devils had one.

This is why this loss hurts. It negated all the good things the Devils actually did in this game. They received serviceable goaltending by Akira Schmid, who had 21 saves in his 12th start this season. Meier had his Devil moment by tying the game both times in the third period, including a goal with 3:56 to go that would make it a 3-3 game.

The Devils lost this game when they did not execute a 5-on-3 power-play goal in the second period, and when Jesper Boqvist couldn’t finish his scoring chance when he had an open spot to score in that period. If both happened, maybe things go the Devils’ way.

Give the Devils credit for somehow tying it, but blowing opportunities as they received in the second period magnifies even more against a great team like the Lightning, who people are somehow overlooking when they size up Stanley Cup favorites.

Face it, the Lightning are just better than the Devils. The two games told you everything you needed to know. They have skilled players that have the know-how to win. They’ve got guys who are never complacent based on their last three Stanley Cup Final appearances. When they boast a player like Stamkos that has the deft shooting and playmaking that gives them an advantage, it’s tough to overcome.

Jack Hughes can eventually be the player Stamkos is. He is only 21 years old and is still getting his bearings on the ice, as he struggled to generate scoring chances in both games against the Lightning.

The Devils found out the hard way what a championship team looks like. They also realized there’s still a learning curve when it comes to playing playoff hockey. It’s much faster than you see in regular-season hockey. These two games not only were different, but they also served as a harsh reality check.

We can say Thursday night’s score told you a different story, but in reality, we saw the Devils have a ways to go. It sure didn’t seem close as Devils fans would perceive.

The Devils showed they can be the team of the future in championship terms, but the future isn’t now.

The Lightning not only sent a message to the Devils, but they might have also sent a message to other Stanley Cup contenders and pretenders that they are still the team everyone has to go through in the postseason.

Even if the Devils beat the Lightning on Sunday night, it does not change reality.

You can read Leslie's Jersey Sporting News columns on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays.