Four-Goal First Period Powers New Jersey Devils to 5-2 Win Over Tampa Bay Lightning

The phrase "Finally!" is used to denote either sarcastic response to a bad experience or an expression of relief that something good happened after much effort.  Here's an example of the latter.  The New Jersey Devils defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-2 tonight in the St. Pete Times Forum - finally.  It's entirely appropriate since two long droughts have been broken tonight. 

First, for the first time since November 24, 2010, the New Jersey Devils have now won two consecutive games.  Please recall Sunday's game for the first.  The Devils' offense showed up to spur a 5-goal third period (with two empty netters) comeback to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 6-3 win.  Tonight, the offense showed up much sooner than that, all 5 goals tonight were scored on goaltenders, and the Devils never lost the lead once they took it.  As fun as Sunday's game was, this game was even better to watch.

Second, for the first time since November 3, 2010, the New Jersey Devils have won a road game.  That's right. Since that 5-3 win in Chicago, the Devils have been mostly horrid as the visiting team with a few "not so bad, unfortunate to lose" losses mixed in that streak of futility.  That streak is no more thanks tot his win.  What makes this road win even sweeter is that it came against a top team in the Southeast Division, a team that was coming off a 3-0 win over the Capitals, and a team that had every reason to.  With the Devils' current position in the standings - dead last for those unaware - it wouldn't have been too surprising to see a let down with the long layoff.  It's not like the Devils have much to play for.  Instead, they came out ready to play and won that first period with 4 goals.

From there, they went from strength to strength to seal the victory.    I have much more to say about this one after the jump, especially since it's a win for a change.  For the opposition's take, please check out Raw Charge, where I'm sure they are shocked to have lost multiple games to the Devils this season (another first, now that I think about it).

Let's get the criticism out of the way first.  I only have a few points:

  • Discipline could have been better. The Devils took 3 minors tonight, all of them were high-sticking calls and they were justifiable calls.   While Tampa Bay only scored on one of those three power plays (and 10 seconds into it on a backdoor play, no less), all three calls could have been avoided by Colin White, Rod Pelley (in the offensive zone!), and Jason Arnott. There's no need to get the stick up high. Fortunately, it didn't burn the Devils too much.
  • Adam Mair only played 2:44 tonight.  No, seriously, it's in the Event Summary.  I can understand why Jacques Lemaire wouldn't want to play Mair, but this makes the continued scratching of Mattias Tedenby more baffling.  Why not just scratch Mair for a game and give Tedenby more minutes?
  • Call it confirmation bias, but the Devils skied a lot of shots in the third period.  The Lightning outshot the Devils 12-6 in that period, and while it took some time for that disparity to take hold, the Devils could have prevented it with fewer slapshot attempts. 

Admittedly, I'm reaching on the last point.  Now, let's get to the praise for the Devils tonight.  First and foremost, here's the highlights video.  Please pay attention to what the Lightning players do each goal scored by New Jersey tonight.  You'll see a connection among them all.

For once, the other team's defensive effort got blown up early and often tonight. Dwayne Roloson was pulled after the fourth goal and was quite angry about it. I can't blame him.  On the first goal, Nick Palmieri was allowed to cause a distraction in front of him, no one took Travis Zajac in the corner, and Dana Tyrell didn't cover Ilya Kovalchuk so he had the open shot with traffic to help him.  For the second goal, it's a 2-on-2 and Brett Clark turns and focuses on Dainius Zubrus, the puck carrier already addressed by Victor Hedman. This makes a lane for Brian Rolston to unload a laser guided bomb and makes Roloson look dumb when Clark's decision to double Zubrus (seriously) was the problem.  The third goal against was started by a rush by Brian Rolston and Andy Greene and while Roloson stopped Greene, Patrik Elias was trailing wide open.  Seriously, no one backchecked hard enough to catch Elias? He's not slow, but come on, make an effort, Bolts. Lastly, Travis Zajac made Martin St. Louis look like a statue as Zajac cut inside, fired it to his right, and just beat Roloson. St. Louis is a great forward, but not a great defender.  And that last tally ended Roloson's night.

Had the guys in front of Roloson made better decisions, these goals don't happen. Admittedly, I feel a little sorry for Roloson.  I know all too well what it's like to be let down.  But I not feeling too sorry for him, since he is on the Lightning. In fact, I feel ecstatic.  The Devils put up four goals in a period.  Four! The Devils have gone for long stretches this season without scoring four in one whole game!  Before Sunday's game, you'd have to go all the way back to the 5-0 win against the Capitals on November 22 for such a productive night.  Tonight, it all came within 16 minutes. Wonderful.

What made the offensive effort even better was that the Devils didn't let up until about the final 5 minutes of the game, or so.  Check out the Game Summary. The Devils and Lightning were tied in shots on net 9-9 despite the Devils scoring 4 and the Lightning getting two power plays.  At the end of the second, there was a small break in shots 11-9 to Tampa Bay, but the Corsi among teams was even at 0 then.  Only in the third period did Tampa Bay break away in shots, as one would expect a losing team to do as the game went on, and even then the Devils scored one more goal among their 6 shots on net compared to Tampa's 12.   There really wasn't one extended stretch of Tampa Bay dominance at 5-on-5 tonight, except perhaps late when it was clear the game was over. Still, going back to the criticism, if the Devils controlled some of their shots a little better in the third, then it's a closer tally.

We've seen the Devils put up great Corsi and shots on net totals when down by quite a bit in the game many times this season.  Not only were the Devils on the right side of a three-goal lead, but that didn't happen.  Check out the Corsi chart at Time on Ice for the game. The Devils finished the game with a net 5-on-5 Corsi of -5, which is impressive considering their lead and how offensive Tampa Bay has been this season.  It's evidence the Devils didn't sit on their lead, they got useful possession with the lead, and the offense was able to keep Tampa Bay's sketchy defense and goaltenders honest.  That's excellent and I hope it becomes a habit for them.  That they were rewarded for it late with Kovalchuk's second goal of the night was icing on the cake.

Another trait I saw up and down the lineup tonight was their hustling.  I know it's a cliche in hockey, but when you chase down pucks and opposition players, good things tend to happen.  Here's a great example of that tonight: I've given a lot of criticism to Brian Rolston for going through the motions.  Tonight, it was like a different player put on the #12 jersey.  Rolston led rushes up ice, he scored a goal off one, he set up a goal off another one, he beat guys to pucks on the penalty kill, and he was far and away more dangerous skating hard than otherwise.  Even if he didn't get any points, I can say Rolston was far better tonight than he has been.  He was on-ice for a lot shots against at even strength, but Tampa Bay sent out Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, and Ryan Malone when Rolston and his unit was on the ice.  I can respect that amid his performance, and so should you.   It wasn't just Rolston tonight, there wasn't any Devil taking a play off tonight.

It wasn't just hustling forward, it was also backward.  Wingers dropping deep to help fish pucks out of scrums in the slot.  Centermen making defensive stops.  Forwards putting themselves in position to give the defensemen an easier breakout pass.  The only guy who didn't help on defense tonight was Mair, and that's because he didn't play all that much.  The Devils' defensive effort was solid tonight, cleaning up a lot of messes in front and not letting Tampa Bay push them around.   This was a big reason why despite a sizeable deficit on the scoreboard, Tampa Bay was not able to put too much on Martin Brodeur.  The only time they really got caught short was when Tampa struck with the long pass through the neutral zone or some other good bounce that gave the Lightning an odd man rush.  That doesn't take away how well the defense played in a season littered with costly defensive zone mistakes.

Of course, when Tampa Bay did manage to get a shot on net, Martin Brodeur was in control.  He was beaten only twice: on a backdoor play on a power play (St. Louis to Stamkos) and a breakaway by St. Louis, sprung by Stamkos).  Neither goals against are regrettable or could be pointed at the goaltender for making an error.   If those are the goals that beat a goaltender, then he's doing a great job elsewhere.  I could go on, or I could just show you this video highlight as an example:

This just in: Martin Brodeur is still quite good.

Here are a few quick thoughts on certain players that I just want to highlight. Check out the Event Summary for additional stats from the game:

Colin White's only real error was high-sticking Steven Stamkos in the first period, which led to Tampa's lone power play goal of the night.  Other than that, White did the best he could against Tampa's top players, which explains a Corsi of -15 (Greene's -12 too). Still, he was physical and he didn't make any glaring errors beyond the penalty.   Well, except for sliding into Stamkos in the third period - but the refs somehow didn't see it as a penalty and it broke up a possible chance. That should have been a second penalty, but it's pointless to quibble now.  Anyway, l still don't get the hate he gets from some fans, but there's a lot of things about people I don't get. Oh well.

I'll admit that I haven't seen the appeal of Nick Palmieri getting minutes in the NHL, much less starting with Kovalchuk and Zajac.  But the rookie opened my eyes tonight.  He knows when to get to the net just to set up a screen.  He's willing to go to the boards, which helped draw the Devils' lone power play of the night on Mattias Ohlund.  He even has been throwing some hits.  With more games like this one, I can't really complain about his inclusion in the lineup.

I love the persistence of Vladimir Zharkov.  Even in the third period, he's forechecking hard and keeping possession alive in the neutral zone and going forward.  Hedman even gave him the gift of a puck and a free backhanded shot on Dan Ellis because of it. I felt he was quiet early, but he continues to do things on the ice that may not show up on the stat sheet but are helpful all the same.

Speaking of keeping possession alive, Patrik Elias and Jason Arnott used their experience well in knowing when to speed up play and when to slow down with the puck.  The game was fairly wide open at times, but as the Devils held a 3-goal lead late, Elias was especially wise just to slow things down.  Elias and Arnott also had good games to go with that aspect of the game I noticed late.  Both men finished positive in Corsi and each had a couple shots on net (Arnott - 4, Elias - 3) even though the team was outshot. Very good for the veteran forwards. 

The fourth line of David Clarkson-Tim Sestito-Rod Pelley did fairly well. 6 shots between the three of them, 4 by Clarkson, and some energy.  Not bad, not bad at all.

Speaking of not bad,   Mark Fraser had a good game too.  Lemaire put more responsibility on Fraser's lap with 19:06 of ice time including 1:32 of PK time. Plus, he managed a +6 Corsi which is good; though, it's hard to say whether he won the matchup since Lemaire did mix up which players he was on the ice with.   I think he'll get more nights like this in the future than the 12-14 minutes he constantly saw last season if he continues his steady defensive play.

Lastly, while they lost, Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis are frightening to play against.  Sure, Vincent Lecavalier and Ryan Malone each put up 4 shots on net, it was those two who commanded my attention and concern. Even limited to 5 shots between the two of them, they were both responsible in the two goals they scored.  And Stamkos is still young - he's only going to get better.   When St. Louis scored that sweet breakaway goal (it was against NJ, but it was still sweet - game respects game), I was honestly worried that one of them will be caught alone or get a bounce or be found on an odd man rush to make it more of a game since then.  Just because of those two players.  Lightning fans aren't happy about the loss, but they'll still appreciate the lovely connection of Stamkos and St. Louis now and for games to come.

I know it's a whole lot of praise and words, but it's been a long time since there was a decisive, strong road game effort by the Devils.  The win was fully deserved by New Jersey. That they didn't sit on a lead or just let Brodeur do all the work for a period with the lead or something similar makes it even sweeter.

Unfortunately, there won't be any time to celebrate and savor the win, since the Devils do play the Panthers tomorrow night.   For now, Devils fans - and possibly the players and coaches too! -  can sleep with smiles on their faces.

Thank you to all of the commenters in the Gamethread.  Now I want to hear your take on the game.  Were you impressed by the performance?  Who do you think stood out the most on New Jersey?  What was the best part about tonight's game in your opinion?  Please leave all your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.  The preview for tomorrow's game will be up a little later than usual.

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