First, let's talk about the good. The Devils played very well in the first two periods of the game. In the first period, the Devils defense slowed down the Tampa Bay offensive machine very well - notably featuring Andy Greene casually poke-checking the puck away from Lecavalier more than once - while getting more than enough shots on Johan Holmqvist, outshooting them 13-7. This play carried into the second period where the game opened up dramatically. Despite Vincent Lecavalier going in, beating Colin White while cutting to his left, and slipping a puck in between Martin Brodeur's legs; the Devils didn't panic. The Devils responded a few minutes later on a 2 man advantage, with Brian Gionta lighting it up. The game became back-and-forth hockey and this is the second most impressive part about the Devils' performance tonight. The Devils and Lightning traded attacks after attacks in the second period and the Devils not only hung with the likes of Lecavalier, St. Louis, and Richards (14 shots by NJ compared to TB's 15), but they were productive. Brian Gionta finished an excellent counter attack from Holmqvist's right side with a strong shot to take the lead and complete his own brace. Less than a minute later, Jay Pandolfo clears a puck to John Madden who charges down the right, makes a last-second pass across the crease to David Clarkson who puts it home for the Devils' third goal. Three goals from New Jersey and they looked good.
Unfortunately, that was the end of the Devils' looking good in the game at all. The third period belonged to Tampa Bay, not unlike how the very first game of the season went for the Devils. First, the Lightning found new life off a David Clarkson interference call. Jason Ward put a rebound that went off Brodeur, floated up, and dropped in like a fluke. This pulled Tampa Bay within one and they definitely smelled blood. For the next 19 minutes and 28 seconds, the Lightning brought everything up on offense including the kitchen sink. Offensive pressure by the Lightning was successful as the Devils decided to bunker for the rest of the game. The Lightning put 14 shots on Brodeur compared to the Devils one - and that one shot wasn't even a good scoring chance. The only scoring chance the Devils had in the third period came at the end when Jay Pandolfo had a shot at an empty net blocked by a stickless Vincent Lecavalier. Fortunately, the Devils defense reacted well to clearing rebounds highlighted by Mike Mottau making a game-saving play in keeping a trickling puck from going into the net. In addition, Martin Brodeur showed the Tampa Bay crowd why he was the best with save after save - not showing any signs of being shaken up by the Ward goal. Tampa Bay was frustrated and the Devils won the game in spite of their third period performance.
This is a bit of a concern. In each of the last 4 games, the Devils have increasingly reverted to an ultra-defensive mindset in the third period. When protecting a lead, that's fine and it has been successful in their last four wins. However, tonight, the Lightning blew through any semblance of a trap that the Devils tried to set up. At the cost of doing little on offense, the Devils were pinned back for stretches of the third period in a bend-but-not-break defense. It bent a little too many times, but it didn't break. Regardless, I hope Sutter doesn't decide to make this late-game bunkering mentality a regular feature of the Devils' gameplan. Hockey is a game where defense quickly becomes offense and vice versa; eliminating one in favor of the other will backfire if the other team can coldly stop the area you choose to focus on. Some more aggressive hockey on offense would have helped keep the opposition honest and a fourth goal would have really taken the wind out of their sails. It's that time of in-game adjustments that put additional pressure on Brodeur last season and I think it didn't reflect well on Claude Julien's coaching despite the Devils' large amount of wins.
I'm glad the Devils have won, don't get me wrong. However, they're not going to keep winning with incomplete performances. Hopefully, this was an aberration and they'll do better against Dallas on Wednesday.
Labels: 2008 Postgame, Devils Issues