The New Jersey Devils went from great to poor to really poor to incredibly lucky to okay again to absolutely lethal in the shootout to win their first game of the 2009-10 regular season. It was a definite roller coaster in terms of performance, as the Devils edged the Tampa Bay Lightning in the shootout to win 4-3.
I'm sure the Lightning supporters, such as those at Raw Charge, have to feel awful about this game. The Lightning were the better team for 40 minutes of the game. After a miserable first period where the Devils were clearly the better team, they stormed out of the gate for the second and just sent wave after wave after wave of aggressive offense. As a result, they put up 24 shots on net in that period. The third period featured fewer shots, but they took the lead, held off the Devils for 19:59 of the period. Yet, they were struck dumb with a literal last-second equalizer by New Jersey and beaten cleanly in the shootout.
Not a great game by the Devils, but we'll certainly take the win! NHL.com has their recap and their game reports up. Visit Raw Charge later on for thoughts about tonight's game from the Lightning's perspective. Read on for further thoughts from the Devils' perspective.
Now, I really have to emphasize how good the Devils looked in the first period. The passes were crisp. The skaters battled for the puck and won. They put plenty of pressure on the Tampa Bay defense. The defense made big stops when the Lightning tried to hit the Devils on the counter attack. And anything the Lightning got through was stopped by Martin Brodeur with no problem. The Devils struck early with a power play goal, as Zach Parise poked a shot right at the crease. Mike Smith stopped it, but the shaft of his stick knocked it past him for the game's first goal.
After those 20 minutes, you're feeling good as a Devils fan. It was, by far, the best period the Devils have played all season long. It was something you want to see from the Devils more often. The crowd was out of the game, the Lightning were lethargic, and if the Devils continued, the game could have become wonderfully ugly.
Unfortunately for New Jersey, it just became plain old ugly in the second and third period. It was bizarre. The Devils started off well, but you could see the Lightning play with more pep. They hustled a little harder, they managed to attack a little more. OK, fair enough, they got a good talk after the second period and that wasn't surprising. What was surprising was that as the period went on the Lightning started playing much better and the Devils started getting pinned back more and more.
Halfway through the second, the Lightning got the equalizer from Steve Stamkos. After an extended possession by Tampa Bay, Martin St. Louis found Stamkos at the highest part of the slot. Zach Parise lunged, but he couldn't pick off the pass; and so Stamkos unloaded one heck of a shot. Did Brodeur see Stamkos? No, he was screened and it beat him.
Then the storm was on, with the Lightning playing with more confidence, more vigor, and many, many more shots. In total, Tampa Bay put 25 shots on net in the second period alone! Was it a defensive pairing that got blown up? No. Was it poor backchecking? Not necessarily. The Lightning just kept attacking and the team as a whole couldn't adjust for that period. Needless to say, the Devils overall defense did not have a good night from then on. Fortunately, Martin Brodeur rose to the task - as he was only beaten that period by a shot he didn't really see.
Incidentally, the Lightning attacks were only stalled in two situations. The first were on the two Tampa Bay power plays - one obvious interference call on Bryce Salvador, one phantom holding call on Johnny Oduya - they had that the Devils killed with ease. The second were attacks by the Devils, and the third line got the Devils a late goal in the second period. Rob Niedermayer paid the price physically in the corner to move it to David Clarkson behind the net. Clarkson attempted, what else, a wraparound and it hit a skate in front. It fortunately bounced wide, where Jay Pandolfo dived, went to his backhand, and poked it past Mike Smith. 2-1 NJ, end of the second, and the Devils seemingly escaped.
Then the third period happened. The Devils defense righted itself and didn't surrender nearly as many shots to the Lightning. But the drop in quantity was offset by a rise in quality. In retrospect, it was nothing but big shots by the Lightning that period and they cashed in twice. On a bench minor for too many men on the ice only 1:40 into the third, the Lightning got a power play and boy did they make the Devils pay. Twelve seconds later, Steve Stamkos was left open to unload a laser of a shot for his second goal and another equalizer for Tampa Bay. Travis Zajac was near, but not where he needed to be and while Brodeur saw it, it was really one well-placed shot by Stamkos. The Lightning's confidence was restored and it started looking grim for New Jersey.
The Devils started playing more sloppy, losing control of the puck, unable to get clean shots on net, and when they did get through, Mike Smith was huge. Minutes after the Stamkos equalizer, Todd Fedoruk of all people pulled the Lightning ahead. Victor Hedman carried the puck into the zone and made a big, cross-ice pass to a streaking Fedoruk. Johnny Oduya was frozen and only reacted until after the shot was made, Brodeur could only slide across in response, and Fedoruk's shot hit the back of the top of the net.
It was 3-2 Tampa Bay and the Devils struggled to find any answer offensively. They came through on a big penalty kill after a Dainius Zubrus hold, which should have raised some confidence for NJ. While they had some more possession, they couldn't get many solid chances on Mike Smith. The ones they got were stopped by his pads, something I hope Lightning fans recognize and respect. The Devils were nearly sunk by the Lightning fourth line, but a shot hit the pipe. Either way, with less than 7 minutes to go and onward, the Lightning were a much different - and much improved - team. Their defense was in position. Smith continued to perform well. The Lightning forwards were decisive. It was like the Devils and the Lightning switched roles after the first period, honestly.
So things were looking bleak. Time was running out. Marty was pulled and the Devils struggled to get a clear shot. Already I was thinking about how I wasn't unhappy about the loss as much as I was with how it happened. But then fortune smiled on New Jersey. In a crazy run of events I can't fully describe, Andy Greene batted a puck out of mid-air, it found it's way in front, and Travis Zajac just banged it home with approximately 0.9-1.0 seconds left in the game.
Once video is available, I'll add it appropriately and you will see what I mean. Update: Video of this goal is up! Watch it! It's a crucial goal to say the least:
Thank you, Travis Zajac! Your last second goal gave New Jersey their first point this season; and sent this game into overtime! Clearly, he was the Devils' hero of the game, for sure (with Brodeur running a close second, again, 41 saves were made).
It's really hard to pick out one player or one line that did not do well tonight for New Jersey, even as Tampa Bay took over the game. It wasn't the second line, which I thought looked good at times; it wasn't the fourth line, who looked more in sync than in previous games; and it wasn't one pairing. It certainly wasn't Martin Brodeur's fault, he made far too many saves - 41 out of 44 - to deserve criticism. It was a team effort in doing well for the first 20, but getting rolled over for 40 minutes and Jacques Lemaire will have to address that in a variety of ways.
Yet, no one thought this then. The thought for Devils fans was "Can the Devils win in OT?" And at first, it looked like they would. The Devils controlled much of the action in overtime, playing nearly the whole first minute in Tampa Bay's zone. Yet, Mike Smith wasn't having any of that. Zach Parise had a great chance on a rebound stopped by Mike Smith's pads; and then Travis Zajac was denied shortly thereafter. The Lightning responded on a few shifts, with Mattias Ohlund having a free rebound shot denied by Vincent Lecavalier's body. Yet, the Devils owned the overtime, leading 7 to 3 in shots.
In the shootout, the Devils were just fantastic. The Lightning, not so much. Steve Stamkos missed and grazed the outside of the left post; and Alex Tanguay (Really? Not St. Louis or Lecavalier or Malone? Really?) was denied by Martin Brodeur's left toe. Mike Smith got stretched by the Devils' shooters, Zach Parise to his right, Jamie Langenbrunner to his left, and so both Devils scored easily.
The biggest aspect of the Devils game that they should shore up is on their positional defense. The Devils conceded 30 shots on even strength and 11 shots across 4 power plays. Shots came from all over, from their forwards (Lecavalier, Malone, and Stamkos with 6) and from their defense (Andrej Meszaros with 7). Also I think the Devils also have to work on responding to when they are getting bombarded - remaining calm with their passes when they do get the puck and looking for the counter attack. The Devils got some of that going in the second period, but it wasn't consistent enough for the Lightning to pull back a bit. If they were better in those areas, I think it would have been a much easier game for the Devils. Of course, avoiding shooting yourself in the foot with a too many men on the ice call helps too.
But honestly, right now, I'm just glad the New Jersey Devils finally got their first win of the season. It's big for their confidence to get the first one underneath their belts, get it on the road, and get it while representing the home team's opposition in their home opener. The Devils will be the opposition in Florida's home opener this Saturday.