Game one displayed how terrifying the Tampa Bay Lightning can be when they’re clicking in all three zones. It also showed how a slight lull in play could enable their opponents to get right back into a game. In Game one, the Lightning were able to regain control and secure a 5-2 victory to take the series lead 1-0. Game two wasn’t going to be like game one as New Jersey came out more focused and determined than game one. It mattered little as the Lightning defeated the Devils 5-3 to take a 2-0 series lead.
New Jersey managed to play Tampa Bay evenly for the first three minutes of the opening period, however, once the Lightning forecheck established itself around the five-minute mark the ice quickly tilted. New Jersey’s defense struggled to clear their own zone and the Lightning forecheck gave them little room to maneuver. That pressure forced the Devils to scramble more than they would’ve liked and eventually led to a penalty on Brian Boyle.
The ensuing power-play was largely uneventful with both Lightning units struggling to generate any kind of sustained pressure. New Jersey’s struggles at even strength before the man advantage disappeared while they were a player down, as the Devils repeatedly disrupted the Lightning’s ability to cleanly enter the offensive zone, and even when Tampa did enter the zone they were held to the outside as the Devils aggressively attacked the puck carrier along the boards.
Momentum was still with Tampa Bay after the unsuccessful man advantage, and they resumed to force play into the New Jersey zone with their forecheck. They repeatedly fired shots from the point to generate a scramble in front of Keith Kinkaid, but the Devils did an admirable job clogging the shooting lanes and blocking shots.
Tampa Bay wouldn’t relent on their pressure though, and once Ondrej Palat intercepted a pass at the offensive blueline the Lightning would finally get their first clean look at Kinkaid. Palat lofted a pass to Brayden Point as the young center sped into the offensive zone once Palat intercepted the New Jersey clearing attempt. Point skated down the right wing and lifted a shot over Kinkaid’s shoulder to put Tampa Bay up 1-0 at 12:15.
Their lead wouldn’t last long as 1:23 later Nico Hischier scored off a poor clearing attempt to tie the game at one. A lost faceoff forced the puck to the point where Mirco Mueller fired it on net. Vasilevskiy made the initial save, but left a rebound in a dangerous spot. Anton Stralman went to clear it but didn’t get a lot on his attempt. Hischier intercepted the attempt and fired it Vasilevskiy to give the Devils some much needed life.
The remaining six minutes of the first period saw New Jersey finally sustain some offensive pressure and get a few shots on net, however, once the first 20 minutes concluded the score remained tied at one.
Entering the second, the Lightning didn’t have to alter their game plan much. The Devils might have had the advantage on the shot clock, but possession was firmly in Tampa Bay’s favor and if it wasn’t for the missed and blocked shots (13 in total) the Devils could’ve been looking at a deficit.
It wouldn’t take long for the score to change as the Lightning power-play started to look like the Lightning power-play that finished third in the NHL during the regular season. With Ben Lovejoy serving a delay of game penalty the first power-play unit finally sustained some offensive pressure and scored for the first time in this series. The play began with Nikita Kucherov making a pass to Victor Hedman at the point. Hedman then fed a pass into Steven Stamkos’ wheelhouse where the captain fired a one-timer on net. The shot went wide but bounced off the back boards and back onto the stick of Kucherov. Kucherov held onto the puck for a moment before feeding a pass to Killorn in the slot. Killorn deflected the pass past Kinkaid to give the Lightning the lead once again at 3:14.
The floodgates opened afterward for Tampa Bay as Tyler Johnson scored to make it 3-1 just over a minute later as he deflected a Ryan McDonagh shot from the point. Just 1:24 after Johnson’s goal a fortunate bounce made it 4-1 as Sami Vatanen inadvertently knocked in a Kucherov pass to further put the Devils in a hole. Add in a late power-play goal for Alex Killorn (his second of the game) and the route was in full force. Vatanen managed to give New Jersey some life with a late goal, but the second period was wholly controlled by the Lightning. They still had issues getting through New Jersey’s shot blocking, but when they did get shots on net they converted on them.
Leading 5-2 after two periods is impressive, however, with the goaltending change that New Jersey made at the tail end of the second it was entirely possible for the Devils to surge back and make things interesting.
Interesting is exactly what happened as New Jersey came out aggressive and with a level of speed they were unable to conjure up earlier in the game. A penalty to Killorn early on provided the Devils with an opportunity to tilt the ice more in their favor, however, Tampa Bay managed to negate it (with some scary moments that Vasilevskiy batted aside).
Unfortunately, the Lightning began to have issues managing the puck in their own zone with poor passes, turnovers, and icings that were mostly self-inflicted. New Jersey’s pressure was evident, but Tampa’s issues were more a result of their own mistakes than New Jersey’s forecheck. Midway through the third period was where the Devils finally managed to apply consistent and dangerous pressure. Tampa Bay’s earlier issues were exacerbated even more during this stretch of play and it finally culminated in a goal as Blake Coleman scored off a slapshot to make the score 5-3.
New Jersey’s attack wouldn’t relent after the Coleman goal, and the Lightning repeatedly made the same mistakes to give the Devils even more pressure and chances. Whether or not the team collectively decided to play a prevent defense or they began to cave from the pressure of a team that has been horribly inconsistent with their pressure is unsure. What I am sure of, however, is that Tampa Bay’s struggles in the third period were self-inflicted and unneeded (I’ll explain later in the recap).
Late in the third, the Devils thought they had made it a one-goal game as Miles Wood thought he put the puck past Vasilevskiy, but after reviewing it was concluded that the puck did not get past him. From all the replay angles available to me there wasn’t anything conclusive that showed the puck got past Vasilevskiy.
New Jersey continued to pressure Tampa Bay as the final minutes ticked away and the Lightning repeatedly struggled to clear the puck and exit the defensive zone. At this point, Tampa Bay was simply trying to hold on as the Devils attack was coming in waves. After a scrum behind the Lightning net that resulted in a rather confusing moment for the officials (and fans), the Lightning appeared to be heading on a penalty kill yet still had five players on the ice. There was never a reliable answer as to why this was the case, however, the entire sequence of events happened with less than 10 seconds left in regulation. Tampa Bay won the ensuing faceoff, cleared the zone, and proceeded to take a 2-0 lead in the series.
Game three is Monday in New Jersey.
First 50 minutes
The scoreboard and shot clock signify a much closer game, however, that doesn’t tell the real story of this game. New Jersey struggled to handle the aggression and speed that Tampa Bay was throwing at them for the first two periods. The first ten minutes of the third was rather even, but New Jersey wasn’t generating much pressure at that point.
The Devils did not, and still don’t, have an answer for the Lightning’s offense. For two games now Tampa Bay has largely dictated this series and forced the Devils to react to what they’re doing. New Jersey doesn’t stand a chance in this series if they keep playing like that.
Tampa Bay has been relentless with their forecheck and speed for the first two periods of both games, and it has caused the Devils to scramble and look lost often. If the Lightning want this series to end in Newark then they’re going to have to replicate the effort they put forward for the first 50 minutes of this game.
The only goal anyone could blame Vasilevskiy on would be the Vatanen goal. He had a clear look at it and simply whiffed on it; those happen. The other two goals were more a result of the team in front of him playing poorly than Vasilevskiy letting soft goals in.
Other than that? This was the Vasilevskiy we have come to expect. When New Jersey was surging late in the third and forcing the Lightning into mistakes it was Vasilevskiy who stood tall and kept the team in it. It was Vasilevskiy who stepped up during Tampa Bay’s struggles and steadied the team.
For all the worry about Vasilevskiy entering the playoffs, the young Russian has done nothing to make me think he has struggled. He’s been the man in net and all it takes is for the team to play better in front of him to further shut down the Devils moving forward.
Final 10 minutes
For the first time in this series, the Devils finally looked like a dangerous team. Unfortunately, it took them almost the entire game to look like one. If New Jersey is able to replicate the speed and aggression they showed during the back half of the third period then Tampa Bay is going to have a hard time weathering it. Conversely, the Devils have looked shell-shocked at times. When the Lightning exploded in the second period to take a 5-1 lead the Devils looked despondent and defeated. It was only after Vatanen’s goal late in the second that life came back to New Jersey.
Tampa Bay cannot allow the Devils to gather any kind of momentum as this series shifts to Newark. The Lightning looked tired and disinterested during the back half of the third period and the Devils feasted on that. The Lightning survived, thanks entirely to the play of Vasilevskiy, but if Tampa Bay starts game three in the same fashion they’re going to find it very difficult to win.
Poor puck management, clearing attempts, passes, and a failure to properly identify where New Jersey’s pressure was coming from where all vividly apparent during the back half of the third period. It could’ve been due to Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi not playing the third period, or due to Tampa Bay playing too passive. Regardless, they cannot play that poorly and expect to win. They’re not going to score five goals every game.
The series shifts to New Jersey starting Monday. Let’s hear what you have to say!