All the podcasts, preview articles, and talking heads echoed the same narrative for the Lightning-Devils series; Tampa Bay will win the series, but the Devils will make it interesting. Normally a team with 113 points facing off against a team with 97 would be favored more. However, given Tampa Bay’s inconsistent second half of the season many in the hockey world were not very optimistic about the Lightning. Well, if game one showed us one thing, it’s that the Tampa Bay Lightning are still a loaded team that can withstand minor mistakes; they defeated the New Jersey Devils 5-2 to open the 2017-2018 postseason.
To start the game, Jon Cooper decided to open with the line of Chris Kunitz-Cedric Paquette-Ryan Callahan and as curious as it was it managed to set the tone for Tampa Bay. The Paquette line was aggressive and fast on the opening shift and that mantra continued throughout the opening period. New Jersey appeared to be shell shocked by the pressure Tampa Bay was applying, because the Devils seemed to struggle to clear their zone and maintain offensive pressure in the early going of this period.
I’ve lauded the Lightning forecheck throughout the season and the first period was no exception. Yanni Gourde led the way early as he just missed on a surefire goal when he deked around Keith Kinkaid—if it wasn’t for a rolling puck the Lightning would’ve scored much sooner. Additionally, Gourde’s forecheck created a scoring chance for Alex Killorn a few shifts later which then generated a chance for Gourde off a rebound. Through the first 10 minutes Tampa Bay had New Jersey on their heels.
After managing to hold on for the first half of the period the Devils did manage to create some offensive pressure. There were a few dangerous chances, however, the Lightning defense was able to neutralize any second chance opportunities and clear the defensive zone consistently. Interestingly, the blind passes disappeared for once and the Lightning defense focused on exiting the zone either with possession or by making clean passes to their forwards up the ice. This change to their approach was instrumental in limiting New Jersey’s offensive attack.
The Devils were unable to sustain much of their pressure after the 14-minute mark and the Lightning went right back to work. The forecheck was alive and well for Tampa Bay and they finally managed to get past Kinkaid at the 15-minute mark. After Tyler Johnson won a faceoff to the point, Ryan McDonagh fired a shot that never made it on net. The mass of bodies in front of Kinkaid had deflected the puck down towards the lower section of the left-wing boards where Ondrej Palat recovered the puck.
Palat threw the puck down behind the Devils net where Johnson recovered it and began to cycle it up the left-wing boards. Meanwhile, Palat got lost in coverage as he looped back into the slot where Johnson connected with him on a pass. Palat then deked twice before lofting a backhand past Kinkaid to give the Lightning a 1-0 lead.
Pressure and chances continued to come for the Lightning as the Devils struggled to handle Tampa Bay’s forecheck, and in the final minute of the first period Palat returned the favor and fed Johnson for the second goal of the game. Brayden Point battled for a loose puck below the goal line before winning the battle against Mirco Mueller and passing the puck to Palat. Palat immediately passed it to Johnson—who was left alone in the slot—and the diminutive forward proceeded to beat Kinkaid in close to make it 2-0 with 28 seconds left in the first.
Surprisingly, the opening period didn’t have a penalty called between either team, however, that would end within the first five seconds of the second period when Miles Wood was penalized for slashing. Tampa Bay managed to generate a lot of pressure to start the man advantage, but aside from a Steven Stamkos one-timer the first unit didn’t managed anything that would be considered “dangerous”.
Once the second unit came onto the ice they managed to capitalize; Yanni Gourde scored his first playoff goal. After gaining the zone with possession, Brayden Point passed it to Mikahil Sergachev at the left point. Sergachev made a pass to Johnson along the left-wing boards before Johnson sent it back to him for a one-timer. Sergachev’s shot was blocked and bounced towards Palat in front of the net. Palat then kicked the puck across the crease and to a wide-open Gourde on the other side; 3-0 Lightning.
Twenty-one minutes into their opening game of the 2017-2018 postseason and the Lightning were dominating the Devils. Unfortunately, the pushback from the Devils started shortly after Gourde scored. New Jersey began to double shift Taylor Hall to get him away from the Point line and the ice began to tilt more in the Devils favor. Their pressure forced a penalty on the Lightning and the single biggest weakness that Tampa Bay had was put to the test against a top ten man-advantage unit.
It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done. The Devils generate a flurry of shots but they either went wide or were stopped by Vasilevskiy (who, at this point, was playing spectacularly). After the Lightning managed to kill their penalty the Devils continued to attack. A few more chances were thwarted aside by Vasilevskiy, but it was an unforced error that ended up killing the shutout bid.
Palat recovered a loose puck down along the right boards and took a quick look up to assess his passing options. He had Johnson in the high slot waiting to breakout of the defensive zone, but for some reason, Palat put the pass way behind him. You know who was there waiting for that kind of mistake? Taylor Hall. Hall intercepted the errant (and frankly dumb) pass and managed to squeak a shot past Vasilevskiy to give New Jersey life with 6:05 left in the second. The remainder of the period was largely even with the Lightning managing to recover from New Jersey’s surge.
Entering the third, Tampa Bay had every opportunity to close the door on New Jersey, and for the first half of the period they did exactly that. The ice was completely tilted in Tampa Bay’s favor and the Devils didn’t register a shot for the first nine minutes of the period. Then, like in the second period, a penalty was called against the Lightning, J.T. Miller for slashing. Personally, I thought the call was a weak one, but regardless, the Lightning penalty kill needed to step up.
They failed to do so as Taylor Hall banked a shot off Travis Zajac’s stick to make it 3-2 with 10:25 left in regulation. How Zajac is able to stand in the slot without anyone covering him is elusive, but the only defender who attempted to do anything was Anton Stralman. Stralman seemed resolute about the fact that Hall was going to shoot (and in his defense Hall was in a prime shooting position). Hall stopped himself from shooting before banking a shot off Zajac’s stick and past Vasilevskiy. In hindsight, maybe Stralman should’ve stayed upright and applied pressure to Hall, but by going to one knee he effectively removed his ability to do anything aside from blocking a shot.
At this point, the momentum was with the Devils and it was apparent as the visitors continued to attack the Lightning. However, for all that pressure, the Devils were unable to get clean shots on net, and the Lightning defense reverted to how they were in the first period by forcing the Devils to the outside often. This pushed a lot of New Jersey’s offense to the boards and it was here where the Lightning struck once again.
Yanni Gourde negated a dump-in attempt along the right-wing boards and forced a 3-on-2 in Tampa Bay’s favor. As the Devils’ defender motioned to cut off Gourde’s approach into the offensive zone, he slowed down to allow Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn to enter the zone. Cirelli drove the net and Killorn floated high. Gourde fed a pass to Killorn who used the two Devils defenders and Cirelli as a screen to beat Kinkaid high to give the Lightning their two-goal lead once again.
New Jersey tried to push back, but Tampa Bay stood them up at every turn by forcing turnovers and negating zone entries. Kucherov scored an empty-netter with a little over a minute left to fully close the door on a comeback, and the Lightning, in turn, went up 1-0 in the series.
The kids look just fine
Yanni Gourde, Brayden Point, Mikhail Sergachev, and Anthony Cirelli were all making their NHL postseason debuts this evening, and some were curious as to how they would play.
Gourde 1G 1A 2P +1
Point 1A 1P +1
Cirelli +1 and his screen was a big part of Killorn’s goal
Sergachev 1A 1P
Gourde was a forechecking nightmare for New Jersey, as was Point. Cirelli was just as good and Sergachev was as cool and collected as he’s always been. The starry lights of the postseason appeared to have no effect on the untested youngsters the Lightning boast.
Aside from a surge in the second period that put the Lightning on their heels, the Devils were unable to maintain offensive pressure throughout the game. The first period they were outplayed and the third period they only managed to generate five shots on net. Tampa Bay’s speed and aggressive caused problems for New Jersey all night and it looked as though the Devils would be run out of the building before their second period surge.
Overall, this was a great game by the Lightning, and their biggest flaw this evening were of their own doing. Palat’s turnover was a lapse in judgement that was un-needed and could be seen as the catalyst for New Jersey’s surge in the second, however, it should be noted that New Jersey was already starting to apply more pressure on the Lightning by that point. Regardless, Palat’s error was unforced and a rare blip for the veteran forward.
As for the power-play goal against, I can lament and try to poke holes in the strategy Tampa Bay employed on that goal, but sometimes you just get burned by good execution by the competition. Hall is an elite player in this league and 9 times out of 10 he is going to shoot from that spot. Stralman made the right decision to attempt to block it, and Hall did what great players do; adapt and make something happen. The Lightning can take solace in the fact that they shut the Devils down in the third and showcased the depth problems the Devils have offensively.
Let’s hear what you have to say after game one!