The New Jersey Devils had an awful first period, reminiscent of the 4-0 loss to Florida. The Devils tried to make the best of it, kept fighting to come back, and eventually succeeded. And they held on in the shootout to turn a 2-0 deficit after the first period into a 3-2 shootout win, securing the Devils first place in the Atlantic for the another week.
I must say, the Devils truly did not look all that good in the first period. Their offensive plan seemed to involve a Tampa Bay defender knocking the puck away and leading it up ice for an immediate counter attack. Early on, the Lightning had a number of odd-man rushes - and they made the Devils pay. Ryan Malone is in the slot and he's covered by Mike Mottau. Both Mottau and Weekes make a move to his backhand. Malone just spins like a basketball player in the post and puts it in. Ouch.
The Devils would play a little tighter afterwards, but then horror struck!! Ryan Malone throws it high glove side from the point and it bounces off his glove and in! Horrible luck, definitely. Horrible positioning of the glove? Perhaps. Weekes clearly wasn't happy with that goal - and I don't think any Devils were either! So Malone got his brace, one with a good move and one with a fluke. And the Lightning and Devils traded blows for the rest of the period.
The second and third periods went much better for New Jersey. There were moments in both periods where the Devils were pouring on the pressure and winning those loose pucks like it was nobody's business. Most impressively, at least for the second period, they were doing it without Zach Parise. According to Chere, Parise was sick. He must have got sick during the first period and wasn't even on the bench for the second. Still, the Devils made a point of it to make an effort - Brian Rolston cracked the team's scoreless streak on a power play. His slapshot just burned through Karri Ramo and trickled in. Parise would come back in the third period and, wouldn't you know it, he put home a Travis Zajac rebound for the game's equalizer by kicking it to himself and putting it past a sprawling Ramo. Good thing Parise came back!
Good thing the special teams were on point tonight, too! The Devils took some seemingly costly penalties (e.g. Zubrus with a stickhold with exactly 2 minutes left in the game); but the penalty killers were on point. Tampa Bay fans must be rueing their inability to score on the man advantage tonight - it could have blown the game wide open. Instead, the Devils' PK units kept the score steady by denying all 4 power plays for Tampa Bay. On the other end, the Devils power play was clutch - the source of both goals for the Devils in regulation. They went 2-for-4 and they were big.
Overall, the game didn't feature much defense from either side. Don't get me wrong, both sides had important interventions made to prevent some scoring chances. And Anssi Salmela looked good out there - his decision making with the puck was pretty good. But the two teams combined for 81 shots on net! Seriously! The Devils had 40, the Lightning had 41. While the goals against Weekes and Ramo weren't the greatest to give up, they both played very well. If they hadn't, well, this game could have become uglier! OK, it didn't. Still, I would have to imagine Brent Sutter and Rick Tocchet will tell their teams to do a much better job at backchecking and positional defense. Giving up over 30 shots in a game isn't good - 40 is even worse!
Regardless, the game ended in regulation with an even score and it truly was an even game. Both teams had stretches and chances; both teams had top players not necessarily play their "A" game. For example, Elias had 6 shots, but the finish wasn't there. Likewise, if Lecavalier/St. Louis was "on" tonight, he scores 3 goals or somesuch. Alas, they will have to settle for assists. Both teams had stretches where they controlled the puck well; yet they couldn't break through. That the game had to go to a shootout was fair.
Nevertheless, the last time the Devils were in a shootout was on December 21, a win against Philadelphia. If some of the saves Weekes had to make in the third period didn't redeem himself; the shootout definitely provided redemption. Parise and Patrik Elias scored in the shootout. Yet, Weekes stopped Vaclav Prospal and Malone to secure the 2-1 shootout win.
The Devils managed to turn an awful first period into a point and picked up a second one with a win in the shootout. That they managed the comeback was impressive. To be fair, the Devils would do well to be a lot stronger on defense and to not lead the other team into numerous counter attacks via bad passes/giving away the puck. They can work on that for Saturday.
In the meantime, just keep this in mind, my fellow Devils fans: Just because the opposition isn't in the playoffs or have been playing poorly, doesn't mean they won't show up to play hard. The Lightning certainly did tonight, and I certainly regret underestimating them.