New Jersey Devils goaltender Keith Kinkaid during the first period of Game 1 of the first round of the Playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena. Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY

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Lichtenstein: Adjustments, Not Panic, Needed After Devils' Game 1 Loss

Devils Look To Rebound Against Lightning

Steve Lichtenstein
April 13, 2018 - 12:32 pm
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Down by two goals with about two minutes remaining in Tampa Thursday night, the New Jersey Devils pulled goalie Keith Kinkaid for an extra attacker. Devils center Travis Zajac picked up a loose puck behind the Lightning’s cage. He then sent a pass that ended up going 200 feet in the wrong direction, narrowly missing an own-goal gift by maybe a foot.

It would have been a fitting end to Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Instead, Tampa Bay star Nikita Kucherov produced an empty-netter about a minute later to secure the 5-2 Lightning victory. Game 2 will be played on Saturday afternoon in Tampa.

They say you can’t win or lose a series in one game, but the Devils would be remiss if they didn’t make any adjustments to attempt to make this one-versus-eight series competitive.

Devils coach John Hynes said afterwards that he thought much of what went wrong Thursday is correctable, particularly the nonexistent net-front coverage that allowed the Lightning to take a 2-0 lead after the first period.

Some of the blame can be pinned on the Devils’ youth, with 19-year old rookie Nico Hischier leaving Ondrej Palat alone in front of Kinkaid to chase after Tyler Johnson along the wall on the first goal. Late in the period, defenseman Mirco Mueller, one of 10 Devils (including Kinkaid) making their NHL playoff debut, coughed up the puck behind the net, leading to Johnson’s uncontested goal.

In reality, the Devils on the whole were badly outplayed for much of the game, with the latter half of the second period the anomaly. And it was Patrick Maroon, a six-year veteran with 42 career playoff games under his belt, who made the backbreaking gaffe. 

The Devils had cut the deficit to 3-2 on Travis Zajac’s power play goal midway through the third period and were making a push for the equalizer in the offensive zone. Maroon got to a puck along the half wall and attempted a cross-ice pass.  The puck hit the skates of Tampa Bay’s Yanni Gourde, who was all over the ice and could have put up a five-point night with a little more luck, instead of just two. The speedy Gourde went off the other way on an odd-man rush and fed Alex Killorn in the slot to restore order in Tampa.

The concern going into the series was that the Devils were too reliant on the Hischier-Taylor Hall-Kyle Palmieri trio to drive the offense. It turned out that they also needed another checking line besides Zajac-Blake Coleman-Stefan Noesen. Palat, Johnson and Brayden Point not only neutralized Hischier’s line most of the night, discounting Palat’s defensive-zone turnover directed right to Hall’s stick in the slot that got the Devils on the board in the second period, but they combined to register six points.

And that’s no fluke, either.  Johnson and Palat were two-thirds of the famed “Triplets” that led the Lightning to within two games of capturing the Stanley Cup three years ago. 

Kucherov was the third member then, but the 100-point scorer this season graduated to a more high-profile line with $68 million center Steven Stamkos and former New York Ranger J.T. Miller. That unit was stifled when matched up against Zajac and company, along with defensemen Sami Vatanen and Andy Greene.

MORE: Potent Lightning Display Depth, Beat Devils 5-2 In Game 1

Hynes needs to sort out this pickle. He can’t expect to win when his top line is outscored at even strength. It won’t be easy either as the road team in Game 2. He won’t be able to dictate the matchups.

In all likelihood, Hynes will give Hischier another go at Johnson on Saturday and hope for the best. If the ice gets similarly tilted early in Game 2, then Hynes will have to switch things up like he did midway through Thursday’s game, when he moved Hall all over the place.

On defense, I would expect Damon Severson to replace Mueller, who had a rough night. Severson would give the Devils another plus-skating puck-mover for these exceptionally-paced games. His issue has always been defensive “lulls,” according to Hynes, so there could be some tradeoff.

The Devils will try to take solace in their comeback attempt from three goals down. They will say they found their legs in the second period but came up a little short.

They really never were that close. They had only two shots on goal after Zajac’s tally, none from a high-danger area, per naturalstattrick.com. While the stats show that the Lightning held a minor shot advantage (32-31), they had nearly double the scoring chances (27-14).

There’s no need for the Devils to panic, but Hynes needs to think about making some tweaks to his plan after such a one-sided Game 1. 

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.