Game 78 Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning at New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils (43-28-6, 92 points) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (35-34-7, 77 points)
7:00 PM E.T.
Radio: WFAN 660 AM
This is the fourth and final meeting between the Devils and Lightning. As was the case with Toronto, the road team has won every game between these two teams this season, so the Devils will look to break that trend tonight. The Devils have had the Lightning’s number over the years, but a loss tonight would mean they did not win the season series against Tampa Bay. The Lightning won the most recent meeting, 4-3 on February 26th at Prudential Center, as Martin St. Louis scored a hat trick in the game. The Devils’ late comeback fell short that day.
The Devils can clinch a playoff berth tonight for the 20th time in the last 22 seasons with a win over the Lightning and a Capitals loss of any kind. They can also clinch if they get one point and the Caps lose in regulation in Boston. The Devils are currently the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference and would currently match up against the Florida Panthers if the playoffs started today. They have a four point lead over seventh place Ottawa for the sixth seed, and are also four points behind the Philadelphia Flyers for fifth in the conference, but the Flyers have a game at hand, so in all likelihood, the Devils will finish sixth.
Something doesn’t feel right:
There’s no denying that the Devils aren’t playing as well as they were immediately after the All-Star break right now. Sure, they beat the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday in a shootout, but they’ve won just once in regulation over their last eight games and they’ve only managed three goals in a game once during that span: a 4-3 shootout loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. They’ve gotten their chances and shots in most games, but they haven’t been able to capitalize on their chances and untimely defensive breakdowns have cost them games recently.
The Devils got off to a good start in their last game against Chicago, but only managed 11 shots on goal in the final two periods plus overtime on Tuesday. They scored on a Petr Sykora power play tally, but couldn’t score a second goal. They got the second point after Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac scored in the shootout, which increased their point total to 92 for the season.
Coach DeBoer continues to play with the line combinations. This morning, Travis Zajac centered Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise, while Petr Sykora returned to the second line with Dainius Zubrus and Patrik Elias. Jacob Josefson returns to the fourth line. Eric Boulton and Cam Janssen will continue to be healthy scratches, as will defenseman Adam Larsson. Anton Volchenkov will likely return, replacing Matt Taormina in the lineup. Martin Brodeur will start yet again in goal. Complete lineups can be viewed below. The Devils continue to shuffle lines, as they have since Zajac’s return to the lineup last Sunday in Pittsburgh.
Break in the schedule?
Obviously, any NHL team can beat any other team on a given night, but right now, the Devils have a bit of a break in their schedule, in terms of difficulty on paper. They face three straight non-playoff teams in Tampa Bay, Carolina and the New York Islanders, before closing out the regular season against Detroit and Ottawa. Perhaps this is the Devils’ chance to feel better about their game and start to play better. None of the next three opponents are particularly strong defensive teams, so the Devils will search for more offense in the coming games.
It’s been a tough recent stretch of games for David Clarkson. His 28 goals are a career-high, but he has no goals in his last nine games and just one assist during that stretch. The Devils would certainly get a lift if Clarkson can find his scoring touch again. Patrik Elias only has three points in his last eight games, and none over the last three, so he’ll look to rebound against Tampa Bay as well. Adam Henrique has also cooled off dramatically after a strong start to his season. The rookie center has just 20 points in his last 35 games, and more recently, just two points in his last eight games. Also, although Martin Brodeur didn’t play poorly on Tuesday, he isn’t happy with his game of late, so he’ll look to get back on track on Thursday as well.
What about Stamkos and his club?
After reaching the Eastern Conference Finals last season, it’s safe to say that this season has been a disappointment in Tampa Bay. The Lightning are tied for 11th in the conference, and are officially eliminated from playoff contention. Although their coach, Guy Boucher, has tried to impliment a defensive system for his Lightning, the team has been extremely vulnerable defensively, starting with their struggles in goal. Veteran Dwayne Roloson carried the Lightning to within one game of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals last season, but he hasn’t been able to duplicate those efforts this season. They’ve also missed captain Vinny Lecavalier, who has missed much of the season with an injury, but he will return to face the Devils tonight.
It hasn’t been all bad news for Tampa Bay this season. Young superstar Steven Stamkos has bounced back from a slow second half of last season by putting up tremendous numbers this season. He has 11 goals in March, 55 on the season, and 90 points. Stamkos reached 50 goals for the second time in his young career. He tied Sidney Crosby for the Rocket Richard trophy in 2009-10, and is about to clinch his second such award. He’s also become a more complete hockey player this season, as he’s scoring goals in many ways.
Lightning projected lineup*:
Pyatt – Stamkos – St. Louis
Malone – Connolly – Purcell
Wyman – Smith – Wallace
Labrie – Segal – Commodore
Brewer – Hedman
Clark – Lee
Aulie – Mikkelson
*Tampa Bay’s lineup will likely feature two changes: Lecavalier is expected to return, and Nate Thompson may also return to the lineup. Pierre-Cedric Labrie is likely to be sent to AHL Norfolk and Mike Commodore would likely be the other lineup change for the Lightning.
Devils’ projected lineup:
Parise – Zajac – Kovalchuk
Sykora – Elias – Zubrus
Ponikarovsky – Henrique – Clarkson
Carter – Josefson – Bernier
Greene – Fayne
Salvador – Zidlicky
Volchenkov – Harrold