New Jersey Devils Can’t Stop Tampa Bay Lightning From Netfront Zone In 3-2 Loss

First period

After Mikhail Sergachev took a high-sticking penalty early in the period, the New Jersey Devils power play got to work. The first unit achieved its best performance of the season. Not allowing clearance from the toss, the Devils got rid of the aggressive penalty kill of the Tampa Bay Lightning with their work on the boards and the passes on target. Damon Severson took the first attempt from above, and the Devils were able to create chances for Jesper Bratt and Jack Hughes. They were unable to convert and the first unit remained on for almost a minute and a half. Just after Nathan Bastian cut in front but was denied on his chance, and the puck was sent high before Severson’s shot split Hischier and Bastian’s sticks in front and beat Vasilevskiy cleanly. 1-0, Devils.

Yegor Sharangovich nearly scored after a great move off his line, but Pierre-Edouard Bellemare knocked the puck off the goal line before it could spread after Sharangovich’s outburst beat Vasilevskiy. Nathan Bastian was next to the net, but when he reached the puck, Vasilevskiy covered it with the glove.

The Devils had several good looks this time, but Jon Gillies also had to face a bunch of great chances for the Lightning. Towards the end of the period, the Devils began to play much looser in their own area, which gave Perry and Bellemarre chances. Gillies kept the Devils in place until the first intermission.

Second period

Andreas Johnsson was assessed a high-sticking penalty 52 seconds into the period. Damon Severson erased the toss and the Devils kept the Lightning out of the offensive zone for the first 30 seconds, at which point the Lightning quickly set up a one-timer for Steven Stamkos that went high and wide. Victor Hedman got the puck from Stamkos after a failed attempt by Killorn, and Killorn had a few rebound shots before pulling it to his backhand and scoring. 1-1.

Victor Hedman handed the puck to PK Subban with a low clearance, and Subban faked a shot before sliding the puck to Dawson Mercer in the high notch. Mercer’s shot was blocked by Sergachev. The Devils continued the attack, and Andreas Johnsson nearly scored on a rebound from Ryan Graves up front.

On a whim after a Devils clearance, Pavel Zacha made a nice move to evade two Lightning players to drop the puck for Jonas Siegenthaler. Siegenthaler rounded Victor Hedman and Jan Rutta stuck him in the face past Vasilevskiy. The Devils managed to hold the game and Hughes had a chance before the play was called off as the Devils started moving the puck too slowly and the Lightning caught up. Rutta was whistled for four minutes.

With the second unit, the Devils didn’t get a shot in the first minute. Tomas Tatar missed a pass from Zacha in the neutral zone, and Anthony Cirelli got a long shot that was gloved by Gillies.

With the first unit in place, the Devils quickly took possession and settled into the offensive zone. However, after just one shot attempt from Hughes, Damon Severson was beaten by Anthony Cirelli and hung him. Cirelli had a clean shot, but the referees awarded a penalty shot. Cirelli made a big move to the backhand, and Gillies stuck to it and denied the shot with his pad.

With 2:32 to play on the power play, the Devils took possession of the game but were denied at the blue line. Mathieu Joseph’s initial shot was stopped, but Jon Gillies didn’t follow the rebound and Joseph had a wide-open net to shoot Gillies’ side. 2-1, Lightning.

With two more minutes on the power play, Ruff dispatched the second unit. The Lightning dumped the ice after Vasilevskiy handled the puck behind the net. The first unit reignited. Nico Hischier had a chance to shoot the slot but tried to pass Bratt, and the Lightning cleared. Back in the zone, the Devils had a few chances for Hughes and Bratt, but the Lightning stopped them all. The Devils’ best power play of the year was followed by perhaps their worst.

After the power play, Ryan Graves was hit from behind in the boards. Nothing came of it. Later, Jack Hughes reunited with Jesper Bratt for a one-on-one with Mikhail Sergachev. Sergachev brought him down with a raised stick, but play continued. The second period ended with a score of 2-1 in favor of the Lightning.

Third period

Jack Hughes had a first chance to tie the match. In a two-on-one with Jesper Bratt, Hughes passed to Bratt, who sent a return pass that gave Hughes a lot of the net to shoot at – but he went to the other right side in the chest of Vasilevskiy.

The Devils had plenty of offensive zone time between the Hughes and Hischier lines, but they just couldn’t get a shot at Vasilevskiy in the first half of that span. The Lightning went into stop mode and blocked the New Jersey Devils’ left and right attempts.

After being denied by the five Tampa Bay Lightning on a zone entry, Jack Hughes recovered the zone and bought the Devils time to enter. He gave the puck to Jesper Bratt, who had three Lightning and Sharangovich in front as a screen. His shot missed the net, but Jack Hughes scored on the boards rebound as Vasilevskiy knocked the net down. The referees said it was a good goal – 2-2 with over nine minutes to play.

After Jack Hughes returned the puck on a breakout, the Lightning came back on the ice with a cross pass at Brayden Point. Seigenthaler crashed to Point and Gillies came out too far from the net. The point went to Cirelli up front, who had a wide-open net to shoot at. 3-2, Lightning.

Jon Gillies was retired with over two minutes left. The most the Devils got in about the first minute with him was a Hughes shot that was blocked – and Bastian hit the resulting loose puck. The puck went out of play in the neutral zone with less than a minute left, and the Devils called a timeout before there was a face-off at center ice.

The Devils lost the tie and they had to defend a Lightning rush. They did it successfully and won the offensive zone with less than 30 seconds left. Jack Hughes was knocked down the side of the boards and Bastian had a backhand chance which was fended off by Vasilevskiy. With a final face-off after a clearance, Jack Hughes held the area and gave Ty Smith a chance to fire a blocked shot around the slot, but Smith stoked and the Devils lost 3-2.

Game stats: NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com event summary | NHL.com Play-by-Play Diary | The NHL.com shot summary | Natural Stat Trick game statistics

Nothing beyond the Hughes line

The big problem for the Devils tonight was that the team didn’t produce much offense when Jack Hughes’ line was off the ice. Only his line had a shooting advantage against the Lightning and his line created the even-strength goal. Unfortunately for the Devils, it was also the line that gave up the goal on the counterattack to Cirelli. But seeing plays like Jesper Bratt walking Victor Hedman with a big deke, and the flow from Hughes to Bratt that led to Bratt being pulled down, or the back pass that Hughes missed at the start of the third – I know that this line has more in them.

I had high hopes for the Nico Hischier line with Bastian tonight, but they struggled to get chances. I thought Pavel Zacha looked great – a forehand pull on the run and a shot around the lunge on a turnover. Other than that, Hischier hasn’t been able to fight the Lightning defense often enough to create chances. Getting a top winger must be a priority for Tom Fitzgerald going forward. I know McLeod’s injury led to a reshuffle and Tatar would usually be there, but I don’t even think Tatar would have made much of a difference to that line tonight.

Netfront Defense

Oh, I can already hear the size debate.

The Devils gave up three goals tonight and all three were on rebounds. Alex Killorn had all day to rebound Gillies on the power play. Mathieu Joseph was unchallenged in the run and collected his own rebound with plenty of time and room to work. Anthony Cirelli was all alone up front when Jack Hughes overloaded towards the puck carrier before they were burned with a cross pass to Point, which set up Cirelli. Cirelli had time for several attempts in front.

Alain Nasreddine has a lot of size to work with. With Ryan Graves, Jonas Siegenthaler and Damon Severson still in the lineup while Dougie Hamilton is out, the Devils still have a few defensively capable players in the mix. Their peak coverage, however, is very tasteless. On Cirelli’s goal, my eyes followed Jack Hughes – who snuck in trying to chase the puck. If the Devils are going to have a striker like Hughes chasing takeaways from behind then Severson needs to see that and block the middle of the ice where Cirelli is heading because Siegenthaler was about to deflect any shot chances for Brayden Point. Hughes is a playmaker on both sides of the ice, but the Devils need to adjust their system when he’s onside to overload one side of the ice too much.

I get angry when I see the big Devils defensemen getting angry. The difference tonight was that the Lightning didn’t even need to pass them – the Devils just weren’t there. Their defensive positioning was poor when it mattered most, and that sealed their loss.

The good side of the Gillies

Jon Gillies had another good game tonight. He stopped 32 of 35 shots with 2.99 goals expected against one of the league’s best teams. His three goals allowed were on high-danger shots, of which he stopped 10 of 13. When you allow 13 high-danger shots on just 11 medium shots and nine low-danger shots on Tampa Bay’s offense, you have to expect to lose.

I think it’s fair to say that Akira Schmid wouldn’t have done well in the same spot tonight. And while Gillies may not be part of the answer to the goalie job, he’s at least proving that he’s at least capable of being a third-stringer in the NHL. At 28, playing his first National League hockey games in four seasons, he has a .907 save percentage in six starts and seven appearances between the Blues and Devils this season, and he has a .927 saves in his last three games.

It was game 42 of the season, and Jon Gillies may have more in store for us. Or maybe that’s about as good as it’ll get. Either way, it must be good for him to carve out a role in the NHL later than most AHL goaltenders would still have a chance. Now, it would be nice if we could see Nico Daws get some looks with him for the last 40 games.

Your thoughts

What did you think of tonight’s match? Did you think the Devils should have won? What did you think of defensive coverage? What did you think of the top line with Bastian? What did you think of the power play inconsistency? What did you think of Gillies? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Whether you follow in the gamethread or on Twitter @AATJerseyBlog, Thanks for reading. It’s Chris – good night.

Robert M. Larson