Wow. What a day and a half for the New Jersey Devils.
Hot on the heels of defeating the top team in the league, the Washington Capitals, the Devils were set to take on the Tampa Bay Lightning, easily the hottest team in the league with a ten-game winning streak.
Then, about an hour before game time, word came down that the Devils and General Manager Ray Shero had parted ways. Josh Harris of the Devils’ ownership group, stated in a press conference before the game on MSG Network that there was a difference of philosophy basically on how the Devils should handle the upcoming trade deadline.
Shero was let go and Assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald would step in as interim General Manager with Martin Brodeur acting as an adviser for hockey operations to Fitzgerald. Brodeur had previously served as Assistant GM of the St. Louis Blues and was most recently the Devils’ executive vice president of business development.
Devils managing partner Josh Harris said that he and Ray “are in agreement that the Devils need to move in a new direction and that this change is in the best interest of the team.” He also said that the “organization remains deeply committed to creating a sustainably winning franchise.”
The Devils currently stand in last place in the Metro Division with a 17-21-7 record (as of tonight’s game) with 41 points. Over Shero’s five seasons in charge of the Devils, the team posted a record of 157-167-48 and had one playoff appearance. Not a knock on Shero at all, of course, the team was a mess when he took over. He made some moves to improve the team, no doubt. If you had told me before the season that all three of Shero, John Hynes and Taylor Hall would be gone before the All-Star break, I would not have believed you at all.
“Our fans deserve nothing but the best hockey. We thank them for their continued support as we work toward our goals” said Harris. These goals include a search for a new GM, which will be commencing immediately and will include Fitzgerald being interviewed.
Oh yeah, and following all of this turmoil, all the Devils needed to do was take down the Lightning, one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference and winners of 10 straight.
There was one small other news item that slipped past with the news of Shero’s departure. Cory Schneider, last seen in the NHL losing to the Edmonton Oilers on November 8, made his return from the American Hockey League. He was called up from Binghamton and backed up starter Louis Domingue – making back-to-back starts for the first time as a Devil – with Evan Cormier being sent back to the AHL.
So, how did the Devils fare after all of this? They won, 3-1, handing Tampa their first loss in 11 games tonight at the Prudential Center.
The Devils did get some good news prior to the game. Jack Hughes came back after five games out with an upper body injury. It was his first game of the 2020 calendar year, as he got hurt on New Year’s Eve against the Bruins.
They were, however, subtracting someone from the lineup. Leading goal scorer Kyle Palmieri was out with a lower body injury as he got hurt blocking a shot last night in Washington. He joined Mackenzie Blackwood on the sidelines and Mirco Mueller was the healthy scratch with Connor Carrick back in again.
The goalie matchup, as mentioned, featured Domingue, a former Bolt traded to the Devils earlier this season – making a back-to-back start and he was great again, making 26 saves on 27 Tampa shots for a .963 save percentage. Opposing him was Tampa backup Curtis McElhinney, who stopped 17 of the 19 shots he saw for an .895 save percentage. The Devils ended up with 20 shots due to an empty net goal later on in the game.
The game started out feisty. At the 9:33 mark of the first period, Tampa’s Nikita Kucherov hit Jesper Boqvist from behind and Kevin Rooney took exception. He was taken down by Tampa’s Anthony Cirelli, who administered a few rabbit punches to the head of Rooney while he was down on the ice. Cirelli went off for roughing, but things would stay chippy all night.
On the power play, the Devils went 0-for-4 with ten shots. They also held the vaunted Lightning power play to 0-for-2 with just three shots.
Things started out normal enough. Tampa got on the board first just 37 seconds into the second after a scoreless first period. It happened when New Jersey could not get the puck out of their own end and Victor Hedman passed to Tyler Johnson on Domingue’s doorstep. He scored the 15th goal of Tampa’s ten-game winning streak. But it would also be the last.
Later on, at the 3:10 mark of the second, Andy Greene scored his first goal of the year when Miles Wood dropped the puck to Greene just as he was entering the Tampa zone. He ripped a slap shot that beat McElhinney clean and ended the shutout streak the Lightning had going at 169:05. That tied the game up at one. Hughes had the secondary assist on the goal.
The game-winner for the Devils came a little less than four minutes after Greene’s goal when Nikita Gusev took a pass from Damon Severson, then faked passing back to him. He instead shot quickly on net and Travis Zajac tipped the shot by McElhinney to give the Devils the 2-1 lead.
Late in the second, with a little over a minute left, Yanni Gourde and Carrick got into a scrap. It was a spirited fight and saw both players fall to the ice in a draw.
The third period seemed to yield a third goal early for the Devils when, with 8:21 left, Gusev made a great move around Cirelli, had him fall down and skated around him to put the puck in the net behind McElhinney.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper then used his coach’s challenge, arguing goalie interference from Blake Coleman. While initially, it seemed that Cirelli had fallen into McElhinney when Gusev beat him, it was actually Coleman that impeded the Tampa goaltender from making the save and the goal was called back after review.
The Lighting pulled McElhinney with 2:19 left in regulation and the Devils took their aim at the empty net, complete with Zajac skating down the rink, nullifying icing and trying to wrap the puck around and into the net. Unfortunately for him, Coleman and Lightning player tangled together and tumbled into the net, dislodging it before Zajac could score.
Miles Wood would eventually get the empty net goal with one second to go in the game for New Jersey, marking the second straight game where Wood has scored into an empty net. Wayne Simmonds and Greene had the assists, marking two points for Andy Greene on the night. Wood also had a goal and an assist for two points on the evening.
That made it 3-1 with two of the Devils’ oldest veterans combining to score the most important goals that would sink Tampa.
The Devils dominated in the faceoff circle, winning 61-percent of the game’s draws, with Pavel Zacha winning 75-percent of the faceoffs he took.
The Bolts outhit the Devils, 23-19, but the Devils had more blocked shots at 14-12 and only two turnovers to Tampa’s six.
Individually, PK Subban led all Devils skaters in ice time with 26:03 with 5:45 on the power play and 1:51 on the PK. Zacha led the forwards with 19:52 including 5:15 on the power play and 1:03 shorthanded.
Shots on goal were spread pretty evenly with Nico Hischier, Zajac, Wood, Hughes, Gusev, Will Butcher, Severson and Subban all registering two to co-lead. Coleman once again led in hits with four. Kevin Rooney and Greene each led in blocks with four each. Takeaways were co-led by Hischier, Zacha and Sami Vatanen who had one apiece.
Greene was the third star, Zajac the second and Domingue the first on the night.
So the Devils will try to go for the trifecta, defeating another highly offensive team in the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday north of the border. Puck drop for that game is 7 PM and we will have a write up for you right here when the game is done.