For the Devils players without much, or any, playoff experience, it was trial by fire. They jumped in the deep end and were off having to perform on a stage they might not have been used to. New Jersey fell in game one 5-2 to the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena tonight.
It was playoff veterans versus playoff newbies, that was for sure – MSG+ showed a stat pregame which showed that the combined playoff games played by Tampa was 1,152 while the Devils’ players combined for just 561. Players like Taylor Hall, Keith Kinkaid, Pavel Zacha, Blake Coleman, Nico Hischier, Will Butcher and others were playing in playoff game number one.
But the Devils do have plenty of veteran leadership: Travis Zajac and Andy Greene are the lone holdovers from the Devils’ last playoff game (played on June 11, 2012 – game six of the Stanley Cup Final – a 6-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings). Brian Boyle certainly has played a lot of playoff hockey in recent years, as have Sami Vatanen and Ben Lovejoy (who has a Stanley Cup ring from his time in Pittsburgh).
What I am trying to say is that there are plenty of guys on this team that have the experience to help this team advance.
That being said, there is always pressure in game one – as there is all throughout the playoffs – and a lot of nervousness and anticipation.
The Devils just got hit early and often by Tampa and were not able to come back from it. Once they settle down, things should be better.
The good news: Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, the Bolts’ big guns, were largely held at bay and Taylor Hall wasted no time in getting his name on a playoff scoresheet. The bad news: Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Yanni Gourde were all over that same scoresheet for the Lightning.
The Devils and Lightning have met twice before in the playoffs in 2003 and 2007 with New Jersey winning both matchups. Both teams are part of a huge turnover in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, as both missed last year and are back in in 2018.
Scratched for the Devils were Jesper Bratt, Jimmy Hayes, Marcus Johansson, Eddie Lack and Steven Santini (both called up from Binghamton for the playoffs), Damon Severson and Drew Stafford.
In nets, Keith Kinkaid was in for the Devils, making 27 saves on 31 Tampa shots. He became the first Devils goalie not named Martin Brodeur to start a playoff game in 24 years. I am going to go ahead and guess it was Chris Terrreri who made that last start in 1994.
For the Bolts, Andrei Vasilevskiy went and made 29 saves on 31 Devils shots.
Kinkaid was on point very early, stopping Gourde and causing him to lose the handle on a sure goal into a wide open net early in the game. But he could only do so much. At the 15 minute mark of the first, Palat scored, taking a pass from Tyler Johnson as he was cutting through the slot and chipping the puck up and over Kinkaid’s shoulder to give the Lightning a 1-0 lead. Ryan McDonagh had the secondary assist.
The Devils would not get out of the period down only 1-0, though. with just 29 seconds remaining in the first, Tyler Johnson took a pass as he was skating into the slot from Palat. He fired up over Kinkaid’s glove to make it 2-0. Bryce Salvador of MSG+ pointed out that this goal resulted in the Lightning winning the board battles and gaining the puck. Brayden Point had the secondary assist on that goal.
A goal late in a period is a momentum killer, but so is one early in a period. The Bolts obliged there too. Just 1:54 into the second period, Palat kicked a puck across the front of the Devils’ net to Gourde, who took the pass and buried it. Palat was having his stick lifted by Mirco Mueller which facilitated him having to kick to puck to Gourde. Mikhail Sergachev had the secondary assist there. That one came on the power play when Miles Wood was called for slashing Dan Girardi.
But Taylor Hall has not come this far to not be a factor. He scored the Devils’ first goal of the game, unassisted at 13:55 of the second period. Hall intercepted a pass from Tampa’s Palat – he was trying to hit Johnson in front of the Lightning net – and fired it by Vasilevskiy’s stick side. The Devils were on the board 3-1 and Hall had his first NHL playoff goal.
The Devils would take some degree of control at the end of the second, pushing into the third when Travis Zajac scored from Hall and Butcher at the 9:35 mark. This one came on the power play and was set up when JT Miller went off for slashing Mueller. Kyle Palmieri sealed off his man along the far boards and gave the puck to Butcher at the point. He passed to Hall down low at the near faceoff dot. Hall saw Zajac right on the doorstep and passed. Zajac simply chipped the puck in to cut the Tampa lead to one.
The goal that made it 3-2 was Zajac’s eleventh career playoff goal and his first since game five of the 2012 Eastern Conference Final against the Rangers. Hall also now had two points on the night.
Overall on the night, the Devils were 1-for-2 on the power play against a Tampa PK that was ranked 28th in the NHL during the regular season. They had seven power play shots on goal. Tampa was 1-for-1 with four shots on goal during the man advantage.
The Devils’ momentum, however, was short-lived. At the 12:14 mark, Tampa broke through as Alex Killorn scored as the trailer on a 3-on-2 for the Lightning. It started with a blocked shot and a turnover and Tampa was off to the races. He shot upstairs on Kinkaid and made it 4-2. Gourde had the lone assist.
The Devils would pull Kinkaid with about 2:30 remaining in the game – and nearly scored on their own net. Tampa would add an empty net goal as Kucherov scored unassisted into the open cage at 18:48.
There was some pushing and shoving following the final horn, as both teams were trying to set the tone for game two. It was the Lightning who came out of the game with the early 1-0 series lead, however.
Statistically, Vatanen led the team with 26:32 of ice time (including 37 seconds on the power play), Hall led in shots on goal with five, Palmieri led in hits with seven, Greene, Butcher, Mueller and Vatanen all had two blocks to set the tone there and Hischier, Zajac, Stefan Noesen and Zacha each had a takeaway to lead in that stat.
Team-wise, shots on goal were pretty even: Tampa had the slight edge 32-31 (due to their empty netter). The Devils won 48-percent of the game’s faceoffs. The Devils also had more hits than the Bolts, 36-35 and more blocked shots, 16-15.
Next up, game two comes on Saturday from Amalie Arena. That game will be on NBC nationally. We will have you covered here as well.
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