Three wins in a row is a good way to bounce back after a winless week. The New Jersey Devils defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-2 in a game where they dictated the pace, their special teams sparkled and led the way on the scoreboard, and got a few good breaks. Ever since that third period against the Islanders on Sunday, the Devils have been clicking more often and the team has been more enjoyable to watch. It wasn't a perfect performance by any means, but there was a lot to like this evening.
The Devils and Lightning held an up-and-down, back-and-forth first period where the Devils held a slight edge thanks to out-shooting them 11-8. They were close in opening the game's scoring when the trio of David Clarkson, Patrik Elias, and Travis Zajac just asserted their will on offense for a long shift. Alas, Anders Lindback and the Bolts got out of that and the two teams traded opportunities. Not a bad start, especially against a team who has three frighteningly awesome offensive players and every reason to avoid a third straight loss.
The second period was pretty much all Devils hockey save for two problems. Let's talk about the negatives first. The big one that hurt was Martin Brodeur making a bad decision in playing the puck. He threw it to the sideboards in the direction of his teammates, but it bounced away from them. Martin St. Louis collected it, fed Nate Thompson, and the ensuing one-timer beat Brodeur stick-side. At the time, it tied the game and it gave Tampa Bay hope in a period where they didn't do much. The other negative that didn't ultimately hurt the Devils were the penalties. Captain Bryce Salvador cleanly threw a puck over the glass after a won faceoff. After that was killed and a goal against later, Krys Barch lazily tripped Steven Stamkos to put the Devils back down a man. Once that was killed, the Devils got tagged for an abuse of officials call. Three straight power plays for Tampa Bay certainly wasn't ideal.
But the Devils got out of that, which is a huge positive in of itself. The Devils held one of the most effective power plays in the NHL to only two shots on net (and two were blocked down by their own teammates). What's more is that Ilya Kovalchuk intercepted a pass by Sami Salo and sauntered his way down ice (as did Salo, who just sort of played off Kovalchuk) to burn Lindback for a go-ahead shorthanded goal. The powerkill was in effect. Power was what the team exerted from the beginning of the period as they held the Bolts shotless for the first 6:43 and scored the game's first goal when Adam Henrique pounced on a loose puck off an Anton Volchenkov shot. After the kills, the Lightning did very little and ended the period with only four shots on net. The Devils kept up the pressure with 11 of their own and everything was seemingly clickling. The defense forced turnovers by the Lightning and got good clearances, the Devils were able to gain the Lightning zone, and do things right. The only solace for the Lightning was that they were only down 2-1.
Unfortunately for the them, their third period was the definition of lackluster. After a good first shift, they proceeded to sit at a handful of shots on net until there were only a couple of minutes left in the game. The Devils got nothing on net, but they just kept Tampa Bay at bay whenever they could, be it at their own blueline, along their own boards, and getting the puck in deep in the Lightning's end. It's not what I prefer - I wanted the Devils to at least keep them honest with rubber on net - but it got the job done. Then the Lightning just lost their cool. A trip by Martin St. Louis in the Devils' end was followed up seconds later by a hi-sticking call on Adam Hall, which was then augmented by Guy Boucher spitting the verbals and getting two minutes for that. The Devils had a long 5-on-3 and Andy Greene converted it to put the Bolts down deep. The follow up 5-on-3 was converted when Patrik Elias' pass ramped up off Eric Brewer's stick and past a surprised Lindback. The Lightning got a consolation goal on a questionable 4-on-4 situation when Matt Carle sniped a one-timer from the right circle; but the end of the game was spent denying the Devils an empty net.
The Devils won their third game in a row with strong performances on special teams, they did a great job limiting the Lightning at even strength, Martin Brodeur did well save for his one error in the second period, and the Lightning helped them out at the end with three straight calls. The Devils have now won three in a row and did it with power. They pressed the issue with their forecheck, throwing big hits that helped their cause, and snuffed out a hot offense for the most part. That's something to smile about after a winless last week and going into a tough home-and-home.
The Opposition Opinion: Cassie McClellan has her quick take on the game here at Raw Charge. She noted that it was another disappointing road performance for the Lightning. She isn't wrong.
The Game Highlights: In this game highlight video, you'll get to see Martin Brodeur robbing Benoit Pouliot, Ilya Kovalchuk's sweet shorty, and two 5-on-3 power play goals. Of course you want to see this video from NHL.com:
Kovalchuk Fired Away, Snapped a Goalless Streak, and Did 25+ Minutes of Work: Kovalchuk has been quiet on the scoresheet in recent games and it seemed he wasn't doing what we wanted and expected of him. Speaking for myself, I wanted him to shoot, take initiative with the puck, and rack up attempts. In recent games, he tended to pass it on odd-man situations (rightly or wrongly) and finish games with only a handful of shots. Tonight, Kovalchuk made his mark on the game. He carried the puck with pace and precision and he fired away when the opportunities were available. Sure, there were one or two moments where he could've shot it (e.g. the empty net at the end of the game, though he did hit the post on a last-second attempt that the scorer missed) and he ended up shotless at evens. Overall, there shouldn't be too many complaints. He put up five shots on net out of eight attempts, set up Patrik Elias' goal on the 5-on-3, and scored off a steal on the penalty kill to snap a goalless streak. That's what's up.
Sparkling Special Teams: It bears repeating: the New Jersey Devils' penalty kill was perfect against a very effective Lightning power play. As dumb as it was that they took three calls in a row, they were very smart in filling passing lanes and getting in the way of shooting lanes. They got a few breaks, like a few fumbles by the Lightning with the puck and their own man stopping two shots with his body. Nevertheless, they only allowed two shots and they were one each from Salo and Carle. Yes, nothing from Stamkos, St. Louis, or Vincent Lecavalier. Oh, and they went 1-for-2 on their own shots.
Let's also give some love to the power play. Three shots on net on their first one, all from Ilya Kovalchuk from the point. Given that Henrique got his first goal off of what was essentially a rebound, they were good decisions. However, I loved what they did on the 5-on-3. They took their time, they set up open shots, and they largely maintained possession from faceoff to goal. Travis Zajac whiffed on an open net - fooling even the goal horn operator - but it's all good thanks to Greene and Elias. The Elias goal was a fortunate fluke, but it was a result of calmly moving the puck around instead of just firing away. Seven shots on goal over four power plays and two goals is a strong night in my eyes.
I thought the Tampa Bay Lightning would be better suited at special teams in advance of this game. I turned out to be wrong because the Devils were superior with and without a man advantage. Three of their four goals came on special teams and truly decided the game. Well done, Devils.
What Could Have Been: The Lightning can take some solace that they very nearly made this a game in the third period. On their first shift, Steven Stamkos was in perfect position on a rebound. Brodeur was on the ice, just desperately stretching out, and the net was empty. Stamkos, one of the league's best shooters, fired the puck across the crease leaving a platinum-value chance for an equalizer begging. As much as the Devils did a lot of good things, they needed a break like that. Such is the game of hockey.
The Lightning did come close to creating a dramatic finish. Shortly after Carle's fantastic one-timer, the Devils won the faceoff at center ice and the puck went to Adam Larsson. Larsson, who was doing pretty well for the most part, decided in a 4-on-4 situation up 4-2 to move back with the puck in the face of a pressuring Teddy Purcell. Of course, he coughed it up to Purcell who played Lecavalier into the slot. Broduer bravely lunged to deny Lecavalier a great chance to pull Tampa Bay within one. The Devils settled down and the Lightning only got one other shot on net before the end of the game. With all of the positives from this game, one error nearly put the game in doubt. Such is the game of hockey.
Defensive Efforts: Like in the Rangers game, I really liked what I saw from the defense tonight. Tampa Bay didn't have many second chances on net tonight and they kept their errors to a minimum. The Devils did a great job forcing them to go outside and behind the net; and there were stretches where they just held the blueline. Brodeur only had to make one or two incredible stops and only faced 19 shots overall. Keeping a team that has been averaging 30+ to less than 20 in a game where they were leading is impressive. Holding a team down a goal in the third period to only seven shots total was great. Individually, the Lightning's big three had the most shots at Brodeur combined. Stamkos had three shots on net out of five attempts, while Lecavalier had two late shots on net out of three attempts, and St. Louis had two out of three attempts as well. Seven shots by the big three is a nice outing given how scarily effective they could be. Everyone else just had a few moments here and there. Given how late it is, I don't have the Corsi charts here for this, but it wouldn't surprise me if all six defenders come out pretty well (unlike the Rangers game where Larsson and Greene spent most of their night at evens around Brodeur).
Matteau's Burnt ELC: In the big picture, will Stefan Matteau command and demand a lot of money three summers from now? Probably not. I'm still annoyed that the Devils decided they had to keep Matteau and play him in place of an injured Dainius Zubrus. Couldn't they have returned Matteau to the QMJHL where he can play prime minutes and try to be a good junior player and make some other move like, say, sign Mathieu Darche after he hung around for weeks for free or call up someone - like the recently acquired Andrei Loktionov - to take fourth line minutes again while moving Jacob Josefson up? I'm not so much mad about it as I am just a bit irked.
Anyway, how did Matteau do tonight? I didn't think he wasn't all that and a bag of chips. Offensively, he didn't do much. Kovalchuk nearly set him up for his first goal but Lindback denied him at the top of the crease on a one-timer. That was Matteau's only shot and attempt of the game. Defensively, he wasn't active enough. For example, on one of his earlier shifts in the game, he comes on the ice and just watches a dumped in puck sail around the boards and St. Louis gets to it first despite Matteau being there. I know St. Louis is fast, but I was annoyed at how just didn't react until after St. Louis got the puck. Matteau got some late shifts and really was just "there" for his 10:07 of ice time. I have yet to see the evidence that he'll be anything close to an average NHL player soon. I hope it comes this season since, you know, his contract has now begun.
I Love it When a Line Comes Together: I wasn't a fan of Patrik Elias, Adam Henrique, and David Clarkson at first. I became one tonight. They did a lot of great work tonight at both ends. They combined for seven shots at evens and the first goal of the game. Again, without Corsi, I can't tell you how they really did in terms of possession but they had several effective shifts in Tampa Bay's end in all three periods. I did notice that Elias - who had a goal and two assists, which were all pretty sweet - slid to center at some point because he started taking more and more draws. And with good reason since he went 6-for-7 (!!) while Henrique was only 6-for-16. That aside, I really like what they did tonight.
Clarkson Fouled for Physics: I absolutely hated that third period matching-minors decision. Clarkson was sprung into the zone and had a clear path to the net. As he was swooping forwards the net, Victor Hedman hauled him down with a hook. A clear penalty by #77. Yet, the refs sent Clarkson to the box for embellishment. In general, I hate this move where the refs call a penalty and then wipe out the power play by claiming the fouled dove. In this instance, how was it embellishment? Of course Clarkson fell down, he was turning while the big and strong Hedman pulled him down with his stick. What a stupid decision on an otherwise fair night for the refs - their other penalty calls were all legit.
The Standard Reminder to the Devils to Stop Taking Avoidable Penalties: Seriously, they had no business taking any of the three calls tonight. Salvador made a mistake, Barch was dumb putting his stick out there on the forecheck (and he got benched for it), and I'm baffled at the bench minor since it was called in the run of play - whistled dead after the Devils got it out of their zone by the penalty boxes. Yes, the penalty kill was awesome. This needs to addressed however.
Gratitude for Guy: The Lightning take three penalties within a minute of each other with Guy Boucher's mouth putting the cherry on top. The result: two power play goals. I have no idea on how to send him a "Thank You" card. Maybe there's a general address at the Lightning's official website or something.
Warning - My Confirmation Bias May Peak With These Observations: First, Marc-Andre Bergeron isn't good in his own end. And the Devils made him suffer. Wonderful. Second, Cory Conacher was pretty quiet. I think his big moment was blocking his own teammate's shot in the slot on one of the Lightning's three power plays in the second period. At least, I thought it was him.. Third, it was in Carle's best interest to score the goal he did. It was a sublime shot. Otherwise, his big moment of the night would have been getting beat by Henrique to a loose puck that led to the game's first goal. Fourth, Ryan Malone played tonight?
Bang: In addition to a power play goal, Greene lowered the boom on Stamkos in the first period. Greene's not such a big guy so it was an impressive hit. It also knocked the puck away from him and allowed Larsson to clear it out. I enjoy hits, especially when they help the Devils.
Swarmed: While the Devils didn't throw two men out there with heavy pressure, their forecheck really got the job done tonight. They forced the Lightning to lose pucks in their own end a few times, keeping Devils' attacks alive. More often, it led to plays where all Tampa Bay ended up doing was dumping it away in the neutral zone. Not all successful forechecks have to create turnovers; it's purpose is to force the opposition to do something they'd rather not do like make a quick decision or put a puck into traffic. I thought it helped the Devils stay even with the Lightning in shots, up 18-17 in shots at even strength despite the Devils leading for significant portions of the game. I'd say keep it up, Devils.
One Last Thought: The Devils did not sell out this game. It is their first game this season where they did not. It was bound to happen; I can't be surprised it was on a Thursday night against an out-of-market, not-so-big team. It was still a good crowd, though. I know Saturday's game is already sold out, but there's little chance it'll be a really big crowd given the snowstorm.
That's my take on tonight's win, the team's third in a row. What did you think of tonight's win by the Devils? Were you pleased by their performance? Is Kovalchuk back? How impressed were you by the Devils' special teams? Who do you think stood out for the Devils in a good way? How about in a bad way? Which one of the four goals by the Devils did you like the most? What do you think they need to work on for their upcoming home-and-home against Pittsburgh based on what you saw tonight - other than discipline? When was the last time each team got a minor for abuse of officials anyway? Please leave your answers and other thought about tonight's win in the comments. Thanks to those who followed along in the Gamethread and on Twitter with @InLouWeTrust. Thank you for reading.