The Devils knew it would be a big mountain to climb. The Tampa Bay Lightning are tops in the league in points, the very early favorites to represent the East in the Stanley Cup Final and feature superstars Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Kucherov had scored in six straight games to start the season and was looking to add to that total tonight (more on that later). It was a steep climb, but the Devils were up to it, coming back from one goal deficits two different times to win the game, appropriately, in a shootout 5-4.
It was New Jersey’s lone appearance on NBCSN national television for the regular season and it was a doozy. The Devils made a huge showing. They showcased their new, high-flying offense in front of a nice-sized crowd (especially for a Tuesday night when the Yankees were playing game four of the ALCS over in the Bronx).
Cory Schneider started the game off with a great paddle save on Tampa’s Brayden Point. And that set the tone for the game. But it was the Devils who got on the board first at 2:45 of the first period when Will Butcher spun around at the Devils’ blueline to shake off a defender and skated up ice. He gave to Nico Hischier, who passed to Drew Stafford along the near half wall. Stafford snapped one from the top of the faceoff circle that hit Lightning goaltender Peter Budaj in the arm and bounced down through his legs to give the Devils the early 1-0 lead.
Tampa would score the next two with precision passing. First Vladislav Namestnikov scored to tie it at one at 7:33 from Kucherov and Stamkos. Then, the Bolts took the lead at 12:21 of the first period on a goal by Ondrej Palat (assists to Tyler Johnson and Mikhail Sergachev) on the power play.
That lead would last until the 16:19 mark of the first when Kyle Palmieri tied things on the power play. It was set up when Ryan Callahan was sent off for roughing Jesper Bratt after Bratt took a swipe at a loose puck in the Tampa crease before the whistle was blown. On the ensuing man advantage, Taylor Hall weaved out of trouble in the far corner and found a passing seam to Palmieri at the top of the near faceoff circle. Palmieri fired a slap shot and beat Budaj to tie things up at two. Adam Henrique had the secondary assist on the goal. Special teams would go on to play a very important role in this game with the Lightning going 1-for-5 on the man advantage while the Devils were 2-for-4.
The scoring barrage continued in the first period at the 19:08 mark when Brian Gibbons scored to give the Devils a 3-2 lead going into the first break. It happened when Miles Wood got the puck to Steven Santini at the point. Santini fired the puck just wide of the Lightning net, banking it perfectly to Gibbons, who buried it to give New Jersey the lead.
From that wild period, the game settled in a little bit by the second. Kutcherov would extend his goal scoring streak to seven games to start the season (assists to Stamkos and Sergachev) to join Mike Bossy, Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky as players to do that. Not bad company there. That goal also knotted the game at three. That came at the 14:02 mark of the second and just 3:21 later, the other Tampa superstar, Stamkos, would net one to give them the lead (lone assist to Yanni Gourde). It was 4-3 Tampa Bay heading into the third period.
At the 13:57 mark of the third, Andrej Sustr was called for tripping and the Devils were back on the power play. The tripping call came against Nico Hischier, who had a great game but just could not solve Budaj who seemed to have his number all night.
On the power play, Drew Stafford would pot his third of the year and second of the game at 15:54 when Stafford, Severson and Hischier worked the perimeter before getting on net where Stafford hammered it home. Right before that goal, Will Butcher made a game saving play on a 2-on-1 odd man rush for the Lightning. That goal would tie things at four, but the drama would not end there.
At the 18:02 mark of the third, Pavel Zacha came to the aid of Gibbons, who was hit high and took a roughing penalty on Jake Dotchin. The Devils would have to go on the penalty kill for the remainder of the game plus two seconds into the overtime, should the game get that far.
And it did. The Devils killed off Zacha’s penalty to make the beginning of OT a four on four affair. Nearly the entire five minutes elapsed before a Tampa offside brought a whistle and the teams shifted back to three on three. But it would soon be a four on three as Adam Henrique was called for tripping with 48 seconds remaining in the extra session. The Devils would need to kill another crucial power play opportunity for Tampa if they wanted to get this to a shootout.
Once again, the PK came up big, stopping Tampa even after losing the first faceoff coming off the call and the game was headed for the skills competition to settle things. Drew Stafford would go first, as Budaj made the save. Brayden Point was the first shooter for the Lightning and would miss the net. Taylor Hall made one fancy move too many and Budaj made the save on him. Kutcherov’s shot was stopped by Cory Schneider and it was now on the stick of Kyle Palmieri to put the Devils ahead. He would connect to put the Devils in the “hit” column and the game came down to Ryan Callahan to keep it going for Tampa Bay. His shot was saved by Cory and the Devils came away with the two points and the improbable win.
Goaltending-wise, Budaj made 30 saves on 34 Devils shots, including three saves on the power play (New Jersey had five PP shots). Schneider made 33 saves on 37 shots, including going 10-for-11 on the power play and was brilliant at times, keeping the Devils in a game they might have had no business being in.
After that great win, the 5-1-0 Devils next hit the road as they head to Ottawa to take on the Senators. This should be another great test for New Jersey on Thursday as they try to take two more points from an Eastern Conference rival.