Funny thing, hockey.
In one corner we have the Atlantic Division champion Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that for long stretches of the year looked nigh-on immortal, and made ritual of beating basically everyone who dared stand in their path.
In the other corner stands a New Jersey squad that just squeaked into the playoffs in a wild card spot, have a roster with almost as many ‘misfit toys’ as the upstart Golden Knights, and… went undefeated against the Lightning in the regular season?
Well. Color me interested.
The Devils made a season of being the eternal underdogs. Apart from Hart Trophy favorite Taylor Hall, they really don’t possess much in the way of name value. Goaltender Cory Schneider spent much of the year hurt, and struggled upon his return. But career-backup Keith Kinkaid won 26 games this year (he’d won just 23 in four previous seasons combined) and stole the starting job heading into the playoffs.
New Jersey headed into Amalie Arena as perhaps the biggest underdogs in all the playoffs, and for good reason. Tampa Bay is as deadly a hockey team as you’ll find in the NHL today, boasting four stellar lines, six quality defensemen, and a Vezina candidate goaltender. For the first half of this game, the script went just as the numbers suggested it should.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper elected to start the game with his fourth line, and John Hynes elected to follow suit. It gave the start of the game some energy, and showed that neither coach is afraid to try something a bit off-the-beaten-path.
Apart from a follow-through on an attempted shot by Miles Wood treating Bolts defenseman Mikhail Sergachev to a bloody nose, the first few minutes passed without many notable incidents or quality chances, but saw Tampa controlling a good portion of the play. As the clock neared halfway point of the period, Tampa began to settle in and the chances started coming.
First it was Yanni Gourde chipping a loose puck past a pinching defender to create a two-on-one. The winger streaked into the zone and put Kinkaid out into about the fourth row of seats with a beautiful move, but just couldn’t quite direct the puck into the yawning cage as it rolled off the end of his stick. He wouldn’t need to wait long for another chance, as on his line’s next shift he corralled a loose puck out of a netfront scramble, but Kinkaid was able to track it through the mess of sticks and skates to shut the door on #37.
The very next faceoff saw a bouncing puck lure Kinkaid out of the blue paint while attempting to cover up, and the puck ended up coming right to – you guessed it – Gourde who wasn’t quite able to control it and get a shot away.
Finally at the 15:00 mark it would be Tampa’s second line going to work down low in the zone and Tyler Johnson would feed Ondrej Palat from below the goal line, and after a quick set of dekes the 2016 playoffs standout lifted a backhand shot over the pad of Kinkaid to put the Lightning up 1-0.
Still, the Bolts kept coming. Anthony Cirelli nearly scored on a wraparound with 2:30 to play, but the toe of Kinkaid was equal to the task.
Finally New Jersey got a quality chance, as Vasilevskiy turned the puck over attempting to play it behind his net, but was able to recover in time to cover up as everyone crashed the net and a scrum ensued.
With 28 seconds left to play, it would be Tampa’s second line again making plays deep in the offensive zone, this time with Palat and Brayden Point forcing a turnover, and Palat sending a perfect pass to the tape of a driving Johnson who made no mistakes and buried it over the glove of Kinkaid.
Shot clock only read a two-shot advantage (13-11) to Tampa at the end of one, but the quality chances were all on one end of the ice.
The momentum would continue in Tampa’s favor at the beginning of the second period, as an early power play opportunity presented itself and they made sure to cash in. Gourde, on what by my count was about his 42nd quality scoring chance of the game, hammered home a slam-dunk after a ridiculous kick-pass across the netmouth by Palat to put the home team up by three.
The very next shift is when things began to change, as Michael Grabner and Pat Maroon would combine for about three legitimate bids in quick succession, but Vasilevskiy was able to turn them all aside. Later in the frame it would be New Jersey with a power play opportunity, where they’d get three or four high-quality chances that Vasilevskiy had the answers to.
Finally with just over six minutes to play in the second, Hall (because who else?) would crack the goose egg and get his team on the board, pouncing on an egregious defensive zone turnover by Palat and burying the opportunity before Vasilevskiy could get set.
The Devils didn’t let up, nearly scoring again with just over a minute remaining on a big-time deflection (chest height to the ice in the blink of an eye) on a Mirco Mueller point shot that Vasilevskiy somehow managed to track and react to, kicking out the right pad in a flash and gobbling up the rebound to prevent further chaos.
Capitalizing on the big momentum shift, New Jersey heavily outshot the boys in blue to lead on the shot clock 26-20 after 40 minutes, hoping to carry it into the third and try to close down the two-goal margin.
Carry it into the third they did not. The Bolts would tally the first seven shots of the period, and at one point briefly thought they had scored when Alex Killorn tipped a shot at the side of the net that Kinkaid just barely managed to keep out (Killorn even momentarily raised his arms in celebration). The third line kept the Devils hemmed in their own zone after the near-miss, and finally a dominating shift came to an end when Gourde (obviously) took a cross-ice pass from Cirelli off of a turnover and ripped a one-time blast just over the crossbar and out of play. New Jersey would not register a single shot until nearly 9:30 into the third period.
But, at 9:35 of the third, Jersey’s second shot of the period was a power play goal by Travis Zajac (one of only two players on either roster to have played the last time these two teams met in the playoffs 11 years ago*) who deflected a beautifully-sold shot-pass by Hall just over the glove of Vasilevskiy to drag the visitors to within one.
*The other was Andy Greene
Now Tampa is on the back foot. New Jersey is charging. Can they complete the comeback? How will the Lightning survive the onslaught?
Oh hey look, it’s that Killorn-Cirelli-Gourde line again.
Yes, the unstoppable force known as Tampa’s third line did it again, this time with Gourde forcing a turnover by Maroon at the blueline, then leading his linemates on a three-on-two rush up the ice, eventually feeding it to the trailer Killorn in the high slot. Cirelli drove the net to create the diversion, but Kinkaid was never catching up to this one anyhow. PING goes the crossbar, an absolute laser by the Harvard grad restores the two-goal lead just under two minutes after it had been erased.
Tampa followed their goal with a solid fourth-line shift, capped off by a thundering check on Hall by the playoffs’ only four-time Cup winner Chris Kunitz, and the Devils star would be slow to his feet, though he would finish the game.
Kinkaid retreated to the bench with 2:30 to play, but it would be all-for-not, as with 1:12 left Nikita Kucherov (who had been mostly silent until that point) dangled a Devils defender and waltzed in to bury the dagger.
At the final horn, a good deal of pushing and shoving came about, with the Devils hoping to set a tone heading into Game 2 (which I’ll just so happen to be covering, as well) on Saturday afternoon.
The story of this game was really a tale of two major plots.
First was simply the unbridled speed of Tampa Bay. New Jersey is arguably one of maybe two teams in the league that have a legitimate shot at keeping up with Tampa’s pace, and in this one they were totally outclassed. If they can’t find a way to clog things up and slow the Bolts down, they are going to be in trouble.
Second, and probably the even more daunting challenge, is the sheer depth of the Lightning lineup. The Devils did a spectacular job of silencing Tampa’s lethal #1 line of J.T. Miller – Steven Stamkos – Kucherov, but the Devils simply don’t have the same top-to-bottom quality that the Bolts depth chart possesses.
Palat-Point-Johnson is a top line on probably a third of other NHL squads.
Killorn-Cirelli-Gourde is an impossible speed/skill matchup for nearly any other third line.
Kunitz-Paquette-Callahan will forecheck whatever is left of you into the ground.
Tack on one of the best one-through-six defense corps in the league, and it’s borderline impossible for any club to gain a matchup advantage, especially on the road where the home team gets last change.
Nothing is impossible in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but New Jersey is going to need some help from the hockey gods from the looks of things.