The All-Star break couldn’t come any sooner for the New Jersey Devils.
The Devils need to get healthy, and fast. They’ll now have the next 10 days to hopefully get their All-Star forward, Jack Hughes, back, potentially Jonas Siegenthlaer, and even role players such as Brendan Smith and Tomas Nosek.
Anyway, about Saturday night.
The Devils dropped their second game in a row and second this month to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Devils did themselves no favors through the first 40 minutes of play. However, Vitek Vanecek gave his team a fighting chance. We haven’t been able to say that often this season.
Let’s dive into the Devils’ 6-3 loss to the Lightning.
The Devils managed to make it out of the first period unscathed. However, the Lightning wasted no time in the second period to open the scoring. 1:09 into the middle frame, Nick Paul redirected Victor Hedman’s shot from the blue line and into the Devils’ net for the 1-0 lead. At the halfway mark of the middle frame, Brandon Hagel netted a rebound to double Tampa Bay’s lead. The Devils tried cut the Lightning’s momentum in the third period getting on the board early. A turnover in Tampa’s end wound up in the back of the net by Ondrej Palat. The Lightning and the Devils then traded goals between Steven Stamkos, Jesper Bratt, Brayden Point, and Tyler Toffoli. Regardless, Point and Hagel each hit the empty net which sealed the deal for the Lightning.
Vanecek played well despite allowing four goals. He made 36 saves on 40 shots.
One of the best parts of New Jersey’s game in the 2022-23 season was their ability to limit their opponent to low-danger chances. As a result, the Devils’ average goaltending was good enough to get the job done, resulting in their 112-point season.
Against a strong Lightning offense, that’s exactly what the Devils did in the opening frame.
At first glance, it might look like the Devils got off to a slow start. The Lightning outshot the Devils 5-0 through the first 10-plus minutes of the first period. New Jersey didn’t get their first shot on net until the 9:42 mark of the opening frame.
However, the Devils did quite well in their own end. By the end of the opening 20 minutes, the Lightning put nine pucks on net. Only one of those shots came from a high-danger area, a shot by Michael Eyssimont in the slot at the 12:21 mark of the first period.
The Lightning’s remaining eight shots in the period came from above the dots, outside the hash marks, and one from below the goal line.
That’s the kind of defensive structure the Devils need to get back to if they want to get their season back on track.
Clear the Crease!
That defensive structure in the first? Yeah, well… the system broke down in the second.
The Lightning scored two goals on the sticks of Paul and Hagel, both similar in the sense that the Devils were physically disengaged.
The concept should be simple. Clear the crease for your goaltender so he can track pucks. Unfortunately, the Devils’ injury-hampered blue line was unable to do that in the second period.
On the Lightning’s first goal, both Paul and Anthony Cirelli manned the top of the Devils’ crease with Simon Nemec and Kevin Bahl defending. The Devils’ defensemen were caught puck-watching instead of clearing bodies from the crease and Paul redirected a shot from the point and scored.
Buried it 👊 pic.twitter.com/vMiDPKhIll
— Tampa Bay Lightning (@TBLightning) January 28, 2024
Instead of Nemec and Bahl, it was Luke Hughes and John Marino defending the crease on the Lightning’s second goal, and Tampa Bay scored in a very similar fashion. A shot from the point by Hedman once again reached Vanecek, however, the Devils’ goaltender made the initial save. Hagel buried the rebound opportunity with Marino and Hughes swiping at the puck.
Nico Hischier was even the third man in on the play with Hagel all alone at the top of the New Jersey’s crease. Yet, the puck still wound up in the back of New Jersey’s net. On both goals, the Lightning forwards at the top of Vanecek’s crease all scored with little to no resistance from New Jersey’s defense.
An Egregious Error
After the Lightning scored the first two goals of the game, the Devils managed to fight back a couple of times and put themselves back in the fight.
Even more encouraging on Saturday was the play of Vanecek in net. Despite still giving up four goals, Vanecek made multiple big stops, including a short-handed breakaway chance for the Lightning. This game falls on the play of the Devils’ blue line.
“Holy &$@%, Vitek!” – atNJDevils group chat. pic.twitter.com/ibW70S6kHy
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) January 28, 2024
We already discussed New Jersey’s defensemen being unable to clear the crease on Saturday. However, the Devils found themselves within one goal and plenty of time left to tie the game in the third period. All they had to do was buckle down and make the simple play to get the puck out of their zone and push it up the ice toward Vasilevskiy.
Unfortunately, an egregious error by Kevin Bahl severed the New Jersey’s momentum to tie the game, costing the Devils two points.
With the puck below New Jersey’s goal line, Bahl attempted to clear the puck by passing it through the middle of the ice. It was intercepted by Point and promptly placed in the back of the Devils’ net. Ultimately the error pulled the rug out from under the New Jersey’s attempt to complete the comeback.