After a successful California road trip, the Tampa Bay Lightning returned to Amalie Arena for a three-game homestand before a week break due to the NHL’s scheduled Olympic break (which the league is obviously no longer attending). The Lightning started off the homestand with a 3-2 win against the New Jersey Devils. Alex Killorn, Mathieu Joseph, and Anthony Cirelli scored for Tampa Bay. Damon Severson and Jack Hughes scored for New Jersey. Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 31 of 33 shots while Dan Gillies stopped 32 of 35 shots.
Normally, the Lightning struggle on their first home game after a road trip, and early on it appeared this game would follow suit as the Devils dictated the majority of play for the opening half of the first period. An early power-play goal from Severson propelled the Devils into the lead and the Lightning struggled to withstand their forecheck.
Tampa Bay’s penalty kill, ranked 12th entering tonight’s matchup, could not handle New Jersey’s relentless pressure. The Lightning had three separate opportunities to clear the puck but failed to do so each time. Allowing that much pressure will eventually result in a goal, and the Lightning learned that the hard way.
However, this is the two-time defending champion Lightning. This team knows how to withstand bad stretches of play and they backed that notion up with a dominant back half of the first period where they pinned the Devils in their own zone for minutes at a time.
That pressure flipped in the second period, but the results did as well. Tampa Bay scored twice during the second period to take the lead, both thanks to their special teams.
Killorn’s tying goal showed a wrinkle in Tampa Bay’s power-play. Normally Point floats a bit lower in the slot when Victor Hedman fires from the point. Instead, Killorn slides from behind the net to in front of it while Point stays in the high slot where he attracts two Devils defenders. After Hedman’s shot makes it to Gillies, Killorn knocks the puck loose and buries it.
A four-minute penalty kill on the tail end of the period saw the Lightning penalty kill redeem themselves from earlier. Tampa Bay repeatedly disrupted New Jersey’s zone entries and force them to defend while up a skater. An early partial breakaway by Anthony Cirelli led to the Devils scrambling to stop him and giving up a penalty shot. Cirelli failed to score on the penalty shot, but momentum was altered and a short time later Joseph made the play of the game.
Joseph makes the read in the neutral zone, creates the odd-man rush, puts the initial shot on net, collects his own rebound, and buries it to cap off Tampa Bay’s momentous penalty kill.
As the game shifted toward the third period, the Lightning and Devils noticeably slowed the game down. The high pace featured in the first two periods seemed like an entirely different game as neither team wanted to make the error to open the game back up. Unfortunately, for the Lightning, some poor positioning ended up being the only error New Jersey needed to tie the game at two.
Brayden Point gets caught shadowing Hughes loosely and a wild point shot caroms off the backboards directly onto Hughes's stick while Vasilevskiy isn’t able to reposition himself to negate the scoring chance. Again though, the Lightning didn’t back down; they pushed back almost immediately and caused the Devils to crumble defensively.
The key thing to take away from this goal is how quickly the Lightning creates offense off a turnover. After struggling for large portions of the first and second period with the Devils’ entry attempts, Tampa Bay neutralized it for most of the third period. Here, we see Ryan McDonagh disrupt a zone entry, recover the puck, and make a cross-zone pass to Mikhail Sergachev. From here, Sergachev patiently waits for a passing lane to open before threading a stretch pass to Ondrej Palat on the left-wing. From there Palat feeds it to Point before the star center throws it in front of the net where Cirelli was uncovered. Cirelli corralled the puck off Gillies's pad and buried it to give the Lightning a lead they wouldn’t relinquish for the remainder of the game.
New Jersey’s aggressiveness increased in the final minutes, but Tampa Bay neutralized each offensive attempt thrown their way. Selling out to block shots, not overcommitting on puck carriers, smart decisions with the puck, and switching coverage responsibilities were all key attributes of the Lightning closing this game out; spearheading all of that was Hedman. The Big Swede has firmly re-planted himself as the best defenseman in the NHL this season after an injury slowed him down for portions of last season’s championship run. Other defensemen such as Sergachev, McDonagh, Cal Foote, and even Jan Rutta all made crucial plays to negate scoring chances for the Devils throughout the game.
This season has been trying for Tampa Bay so far. Their record says otherwise, but the sheer array of injuries, especially on the defensive side, would be a recipe for disaster for other teams. For the Lightning? Just another obstacle to overcome en route to defending their status as the best team in the NHL.