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Kucherov and Vasilevskiy shine as Tampa Bay Lightning eliminate New Jersey Devils, 3-1

Kucherov scored the game winner while Vaslievskiy stopped 26 of 27 shots to eliminate the Devils.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New Jersey Devils at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Lightning entered today’s matinee matchup with New Jersey hoping to close them out and be the first team in the Eastern Conference to advance to the second round. They did just that with a defensively sound game that suffocated the Devils’ offense en route to a 3-1 victory. The Lightning close out the series 4 games to 1 and will await the winner of the Toronto-Boston series.

With Ryan Callahan returning to the lineup, Cory Conacher was the last-minute scratch after warms-ups. No other changes were made to the lineup for the game.

Early on it looked as if New Jersey was going to do what Colorado did to Nashville last night. Play fast, aggressive, and desperate. The Lightning managed to weather the early pressure, but had their own troubles connecting on some passes due to timing and odd bounces. Additionally, New Jersey’s defensive pressure looked much cleaner when Tampa Bay entered the offensive zone. More than a few rushes were negated by the Devils standing up at their own blueline.

Tampa Bay didn’t relent, however, and their forecheck continued to force the puck deep into the offensive zone. The Killorn-Cirelli-Gourde line pinned the Devils in their zone repeatedly during the first half of the period, and it paid off with a certain rookie getting his first NHL playoff goal.

Gourde forced a weak pass from Travis Zajac below the goal line which was recovered by Anthony Cirelli. Cirelli then faked towards his left, which Devils defender Andy Greene bit on, and then went right to give himself some space. Cirelli glided momentarily before feeding a pass to Mikhail Sergachev at the point. Sergachev wasted no time as he held onto the puck for a second before firing it on net. The shot went through four bodies (two Tampa Bay, Two New Jersey) and past Cory Schneider to make it 1-0 8:07 into the first period.

Side note here: Sergachev’s celebration was great. I loved every second of it. His exuberance is a reminder for how we should all take this game: as fun.

Tampa Bay controlled the majority of the first period except for the last few minutes. New Jersey struggled to maintain offensive pressure up to that point, and once they got their cycle game going they began to put pressure on Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Russian netminder was up to the task, however, as he denied this late surge. Once the Lightning managed to weather that surge by the Devils they closed out the period on rather even terms.

I really don’t know how to explain the second period. It was so tilted in Tampa Bay’s favor with the power plays that the Devils never really got a chance to do anything other than defend. The Lightning got four consecutive power-plays in the second period, and they were all basically back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Tampa Bay didn’t score on any of those chances. It wasn’t for lack of trying or generating chances, hell, aside from the first man advantage turning the puck over and gifting New Jersey with a shorthanded chance the Lightning peppered Schneider with shots. The reason why those power plays resulted in zero goals was Cory Schneider.

I stated in game two when Schneider relieved Kinkaid that he was going to alter the series with his play, and he did just that. He was important in game three where New Jersey won, and he kept the Devils alive in game four. In this period, Schneider reminded everyone why he was an elite goaltender. There were several (and I mean several) chances for the Lightning that didn’t go in solely because of Schneider. One-timers, tipped shots, in-close chances off rebounds, and posts all were thrown at the Devils netminder. He didn’t care, though. He stopped everything thrown at him and single-handedly kept New Jersey alive.

If Schneider did not stand on his head in this period, the score would’ve been 4-0 before the second period ended—he was that outstanding. Tampa Bay received their fifth power play at the end of the period and would start the third with the man advantage.

As was the case in the second, it was Schneider who shut down the Lightning power play for the fifth straight time. I’m not going to elaborate more than that. Cory Schneider was a god for the Devils in this game.

Despite the failed power-plays, Tampa Bay controlled play for the first five minutes of the third period. The Cirelli line continued to pressure the Devils into mistakes but were unable to convert on any scoring chances—same with the Stamkos and Point lines. They repeatedly pinned New Jersey in their own zone yet were unable to capitalize on it.

With all of those power plays forcing the Devils to defend repeatedly, one would think they would’ve been too tired to push back against Tampa Bay. That wasn’t the case as New Jersey came back with authority for the next five minutes. This pressure by New Jersey wasn’t the result of Tampa Bay playing poorly, it was due to New Jersey simply taking advantage of the little space they had. They forced the Lightning defense back and cycled the puck in the offensive zone to help generate chances. Like Schneider did for New Jersey, Vasilevskiy did the same for Tampa Bay during this pressure. A breakaway for Kucherov broke up the New Jersey pressure, and when the Devils forced play back into the Lightning zone it was a fantastic toe-save from Vasilevskiy that kept the score 1-0 after Nico Hischier tried to stuff it past him.

The Lightning’s only penalty of the game was called on Cirelli midway through the third and once again the penalty kill stepped up and neutralized the Devils man advantage. Jon Cooper mentioned during a conference call that Tampa Bay’s approach to fixing their penalty kill was to settle on pairs of players and to simplify the reads those players needed to make. Whatever those read corrections were it appears to have worked as the Lightning killed 16 of 19 penalties during the series.

Kucherov provided a much needed insurance goal 12:27 into the third as he received a pass from Anton Stralman near the offensive blueline. Kucherov skated towards his left to position himself at the top of the blueline before firing a shot towards the net. The shot got past Schneider (thanks to yet another screen) to put the Lightning up 2-0.

New Jersey did not quit and proceeded to pin the Lightning in their zone as time was running out on their season. Desperation was evident in their play, and they finally broke through Vasilevkiy with three minutes left in regulation. Patrick Maroon tipped a Kyle Palmieri point shot to make it 2-1. It might have taken New Jersey 57 minutes to finally break through in their biggest game of the season, but the Devils never quit in the process.

Fortunately, the Lightning defense clamped down on the Devils offense as the third period winded down. Ryan Callahan put the nail in the coffin on the Devils season with an empty net goal with two seconds left, and once the following face-off occurred the Tampa Bay Lightning eliminated the New Jersey Devils in five games.

The Good

The Goaltenders

I normally don’t laud opposing goaltenders in my recaps, but I can’t single either one of them out. Both Cory Schneider and Andrei Vasilevskiy were fantastic in this game (and in this series). Schneider was the far busier goalie and deserves a massive amount of praise for keeping the Devils in this game because there were long stretches of time where New Jersey was pinned in their zone praying for a stoppage.

Vasilevskiy, not to be outdone, did the same for Tampa Bay when the Devils were pressuring and crashing his net. There were too many saves from Schneider to pin down which one was his best, but Vasilevskiy’s best save was the toe-save on Hischier after the puck bounced in an odd direction. Watch that play again and you’ll see just how close Hischier was to scoring there. No matter whether you’re ahead or behind you need your goaltender to make saves like that in crunch time. Schneider and Vasilevskiy did that.

Yes, Tampa Bay scored two on Schneider, but they required bodies to be in front of him to even manage it—that’s how dominant Schneider was this evening. If Schneider had started this series instead of coming in on relief in game two this series could’ve gone much differently.

Devils Future

New Jersey doesn’t have the offensive punch or defensive depth that contenders have, but what they do have are some impressive young players that are only going to get better as the years go by. They have Taylor Hall leading the way with Nico Hischier, Pavel Zacha, Will Butcher, Jesper Bratt, and Mirco Mueller all under 24 years old and garnering this playoff experience. If New Jersey can address some of their depth issues on both sides of the puck then this team will shoot up the standings in the coming years.

Do not discount the Devils moving forward.

Team Defense

For the first half of the season the Tampa Bay Lightning lit the league on fire. They scored at will, limited chances against, and were clicking on a power-play that was scorching hot. The second half saw the Lightning falter in every category I just mentioned. This caused many to worry about the team entering this series (and many “experts” saying that Tampa Bay would be the likeliest team to be upset in the first round).

Well, Tampa Bay came out dominant in every aspect in this series. They controlled the game at 5v5, their power-play scored timely goals, the penalty kill wasn’t a sieve (it was actually an impressive 83% entering this game), and the defensive scrambling that plagued the Lightning this season was largely absent.

There were some moments where the defense resembled the uncoordinated mess that cooled off their hot start to the season, but you could see the calm demeanor of the players as they settled themselves into position and pushed play out of their zone. I don’t think anything depicts this better than the waning seconds of the game where Ryan McDonagh and Anton Stralman calmly chipped the puck around several Devils players below the goal to negate their forechecking pressure. They moved the puck up the boards and out of the zone without ever making a panic move or clearing attempt. That is the way they should handle themselves deep in their own zone.

The Bad

Five Straight Power-Plays

It’s only here because it looks bad on paper. We all know it was Cory Schneider who stonewalled the Lightning on the man advantage. Moving on.

The Whatever

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