As the New Jersey Devils retreated to their locker room for the first intermission after going scoreless for their third straight period, they knew that mounting a comeback against the veteran Tampa Bay Lightning would require more effort even from a team whose hallmark all year has been its resiliency. The team recognized that its energy level was insufficient in the first period. Captain Nico Hischier shared, “[W]e were talking about it in (the locker room) and even on the bench, the energy was low but picked up better in the second and third.” Hischier was seen throughout the first period imploring his teammates to raise their levels and it seemed to resonate, especially as the game wore on.
Three separate times the Devils responded to go-ahead goals by the Lightning. Two of those off the stick of newly acquired winger Timo Meier, including a laser, one-timer late in the third period, after the Devils had pulled goalie Akira Schmid to create a 6v4 advantage on the power play.
TIMO TIER, WE MEAN MEIER TIED ‘ER. pic.twitter.com/drS1RvCjel
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) March 17, 2023
Despite outshooting the Lightning 13-6 in the third period and overtime combined, the Devils were unable to take the lead and ultimately succumbed to the Lightning in the shootout. The shootout loss though should be encouraging to Devils fans after their poor result in Tuesday’s contest where they lost 4-1. Again the team demonstrated an ability to adapt their play to the more experienced Lightning and break through against a team that is well versed in locking down leads in the final period. The Devils twice overcame deficits in the third, and continue to show that they will not be an easy out come playoff time.
Judging the last two games against the Lightning solely by the score is misleading. The Devils dominated the Lightning at 5v5 play In the two games the Devils had more shot attempts, scoring chances, high-danger chances, and nearly 64% of the expected goals. If you prefer the more traditional statistics, the Devils had more hits than the Lightning, (35-28), won the face-off battle (60-40), and held the second-best power play in the NHL to one goal on five opportunities. The Devils should take solace in the fact that a month out from the start of the playoffs they are not getting pushed around by the three-time Eastern Conference Champions, and are able to play a multi-faceted game.
Possibly the biggest gap between the teams came between the pipes. In the two games, Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped over three and a half goals above expected, while Devils goalies Vitek Vanecek (2.17) and Akira Schmid (.15) combined to allow almost two and a half goals above expected. This six goal swing was essentially the difference in the two games. The Devils will need to shore up their goaltending over the coming weeks if they are to make a deep run in the playoffs. Once Blackwood returns the Devils would be wise to allow for a three man rotation to give Vanecek rest and allow Blackwood to round into form and Schmid to stay sharp. Schmid has been playing the best of the three now for six to eight weeks but the Devils would like to be able to rely on Vanecek’s experience for a playoff run and getting him time to rest mentally as well as physically is imperative. Though if Schmid can continue to make saves like he did on Nick Paul, perhaps he may earn additional playing time.
A very casual save of the year candidate from Akira Schmid. pic.twitter.com/6wFLNGky9D
— NHL (@NHL) March 17, 2023
Far too often this season after losses Ruff has had to come to the podium and lament missed defensive assignments. This again was the case in Thursday’s game against the Lightning. The crucial first Stamkos goal, that came on the heels of a squandered 5v3 power play was the result of allowing Stamkos to skate, unfettered, into the high slot and blast the go ahead goal past Schmid. The other two goals were a laser by Stamkos that is indicative of why he is headed to the Hall of Fame and a deflection off of a shin pad. Similarly, on Tuesday, and even last week against Toronto, far too often the Devils have been caught out of position or made ill advised passes without coverage and support leading to grade A opportunities for the opposition.
Tonight's Lightning Radio Call of the Game is the big goal by Steven Stamkos after a full 5v3 penalty kill #TBLvsNJD
— Lightning Radio (@BoltsRadio) March 17, 2023
Finding ways to play simple and maintain assignments and coverage, even if at the expense of flashier plays, will go a long way to determining how many games the Devils get to play in the postseason. This is also why Brendan Smith, with his experience, is likely to get shifts in the playoffs over Kevin Bahl and possibly Luke Hughes.
HISCHIER & HUGHES
As Hischier and Hughes go, so go the Devils. Nico was easily the best player on the ice Thursday night for either team. His play driving directly led to two of the three goals and his expected goals for % was over 82% for the game. He won 17 of 23 faceoffs, ended with two assists and was often matched up against the Lightning’s best line. It is no surprise that lines with Nico centering them have been among the most productive in the NHL, not just the team.
Hischier’s 200 foot play-driving, and back-checking is essential to making the Devils competitive and they will need production from him on both ends to be successful.
Questions abound regarding the true health of Jack Hughes who has not returned to form fully since his injury coming out of the All-Star break. Hughes, though, was everywhere on the ice Thursday, and even though he did not find the back of the net it was not for a lack of trying. Hughes had a 72% expected goals for, took 15 shot attempts while playing three full minutes more than any other forward. Hughes continuing to drive plays and finding chemistry with Meier at 5v5 and on the power play also has to be a sharp focus for the Devils in their last 30 days of the regular season.
It is no secret that the Devils power play has struggled since the addition of Timo Meier. Despite the addition of his 11 power play goals, the Devils have only scored four power play goals in sixteen opportunities, most coming from the second unit which does not feature Meier. Ruff acknowledged after the game last night that they are considering moving personnel to try to integrate a right handed shot amongst the forwards on the unit. This is the spot that has been waiting for Alexander Holtz to lay claim, however with him marooned in the AHL it will likely fall to Dawson Mercer. Mercer’s grittiness around the crease and play-making ability would serve that unit well and adding Jesper Bratt’s dynamism to the second unit could prove to bolster both.
By the start of the playoff the power play should be a lethal weapon for the Devils allowing them to utilize their superior skill against heavier teams that will likely try to take away the middle of the ice and the rush opportunities at 5v5.
The Devils will continue their grueling March schedule with back-to-back games in Florida against the Panthers and Lightning this weekend followed by games on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, against the Wild, Sabres, and Senators, all three desperately fighting to make the playoffs. They have called up Nolan Foote from the AHL to provide forward depth with the continued absence of Miles Wood and Nathan Bastian. Wood and Bastian have been held out of games and practices this week and the team has yet to give a full update on either’s status.
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