The 2015-16 New Jersey Devils’ season officially slipped into oblivion at about 4 PM this afternoon when the Philadelphia Flyers defeated the Ottawa Senators to mathematically eliminate the Devils from playoff contention. Despite that huge blow, though, the team would still need to muster up the strength to play the Tampa Bay Lightning in their only trip to Tampa this season.
After their loss to the Florida Panthers on Thursday, the Devils could play spoiler by defeating the Bolts and thereby giving the Atlantic Division lead to the Panthers. But it was not in the cards, as they fell 3-1 to Tampa in a game in which the Devils competed, but spent way too much time in the penalty box than was good for them.
The Devils would get three familiar faces back in the lineup as David Schlemko and Jacob Josefson returned from the land of the injured.
However, it was the man in net who would play the biggest role in this game, as he had all season before getting hurt back in early March. That man was Cory Schneider and he played like the goaltender he has been all year, keeping the Devils in a game that they were outmatched in at times. He made 33 stops on 35 shots faced (the Lightning had a game total of 36 shots – one was an empty net goal).
Facing him in the opposite crease would be a man who will be his teammate in September when Team USA takes the ice for the World Cup of Hockey: Ben Bishop. Bishop made 25 saves on 26 Devils shots.
Devils goalies have been the MVPs of the team this season. All three of them guys who started for New Jersey between the pipes have records over .500 and have combined for seven shutouts. But while Keith Kinkaid and Scott Wedgewood played extremely well at times, it was Cory who was the calming force for the team, an All-Star.
One player that the Devils would lose for the final four games of the season was Jordin Tootoo, whose season ended when he had surgery on a tendon sheath in his right wrist. It was successful, but obviously, he cannot finish the year.
The Lightning would also be facing a major injury; Steven Stamkos is out with an upper body injury. It turned out that he will miss 1 to 3 months after undergoing surgery for a blood clot in his arm. It is directly due to this that the Triplets Line was reunited by Tampa coach Jon Cooper.
Cooper and Devils’ coach John Hynes would be meeting up again. They faced each other twice in the AHL Calder Cup Playoffs, with each one winning one series. This year, Cooper will participate in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, while Hynes will sit it out.
Tampa Bay spent the early part of the game pressuring the Devils’ zone, with Cory standing on his head at times. The Devils had their chances too, though, as Mike Sislo drove in on a partial breakaway midway through the first period. Bishop stopped the initial shot and the rebound as well. Just prior to that, Cory had made a kick save with the knee that he had injured and seemed okay.
With the first period scoreless, the breakthrough did not come until the 9:03 of the second period when the Bolts’ Victor Hedman scored from Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov. The Devils had fallen behind 1-0, but with both teams making a steady line to the penalty box, teams would have their chances.
One good penalty taken by the Devils was when Devante Smith-Pelly went off for roughing Brian Boyle. Both he and Boyle got coincidental minors for roughing, but it was good to see the bigger Smith-Pelly come to the aid of the smaller Tyler Kennedy, who was in a confrontation with Boyle.
The Devils would tie things up late in the second period on a power play goal. It began at 18:15, when Tampa’s Braydon Coburn was called for holding Travis Zajac (Zajac’s brother Nolan will be playing on this ice surface in about a week for Denver University in the 2016 NCAA Frozen Four). On the ensuing man advantage, Damon Severson headmanned the puck to Kennedy in front of the Devils’ bench. He then shoveled it to a breaking Adam Henrique who beat Bishop to tie the game up at one. The Devils had scored at 19:32 of the second period on the power play.
The Devils had some odd man situations in the minutes leading up to that goal, but could not bury them.
However, in the third period, the Devils would take three penalties to one for the Lightning, helping to set up Tampa taking the lead.
At 10:27, the Devils got caught in a bad change and were caught with too many men on the ice. The bench minor put the Bolts up a man and they would strike. Brian Boyle scored from Nikita Nesterov and Kucherov to put the Lightning up 2-1.
And that was about it. Again, Schneider was brilliant at times, even stopping Kucherov late in the third period to keep the game within reach for the Devils.
Schneider would be pulled with about 1:30 left in the game, but Kucherov would score an empty netter from Hedman and Cedric Paquette to make the final 3-1.
It was clearly an undisciplined game from both sides. New Jersey went 1-for-6 on the power play while Tampa Bay went 1-for-7 with the extra man. That is a lot of penalties piling up, a dangerous situation for both teams. And it showed.
Next up for the Devils, they return home on Tuesday to take on the Buffalo Sabres before getting another crack at the Lightning on Thursday. The Sabres are a lot like the Devils in that they are a young team, out of the playoffs looking to finish by making a statement. We will see what Jack Eichel and company have in store for the Devils when they come to Newark to help finish the stretch run of the season.
On a closing note, congratulations to Tom Gulitti, who has covered the Devils for 14 years and will soon be taking a new job with NHL.com primarily covering the Washington Capitals, but also doing features on most of the southeastern-based teams like Carolina, Florida and Tampa Bay. This was announced as he appeared with Deb Placey on the MSG+ pregame show. He has covered the Devils with diligence and humor over his tenure and will be greatly missed on the Devils’ beat. For those of us who enjoyed reading his “Fire and Ice” blog, it is a shame that he will not be able to maintain it anymore, but I cannot wait to see what he has in store over at NHL.com.