Make no mistake, last night’s 5-2 win breathed new life in this series. The Devils played a hard-fought game, but endured some lengthy stretches of time where they struggled to get the puck out of their own zone. Cory Schneider indisputably reclaimed his starting role back with a remarkable 34-save performance, while Taylor Hall led the way with a goal and three points— including the primary assist off Stefan Noesen’s game-winner.
Regardless of how it happened, New Jersey got the win, and that’s what matters most this time of year. However, last night’s victory, which the Devils got by the skin of their teeth, was filled with reminders of this team’s one major flaw that could have easily derailed the outcome— Penalties.
Going into tonight’s matchups, Tampa (15) and New Jersey (13) have respectively committed the third and fourth-most minor penalties this postseason. This is something Tampa’s juggernaut offense has taken advantage of, scoring on five of their nine power plays (55 percent). Before scoring on two out of five opportunities last night, the Lightning converted on three out of their first four power plays. While the Devils penalty kill was considerably better tonight than the last two games, the fact remains they still surrendered two power play goals in a game they technically won by a goal (if you factor out the two empty-netters).
New Jersey’s frequent trips to the penalty box can be traced back to discipline, something this team has been very inconsistent with all season. I mentioned in my series preview that Tampa Bay would give the Devils trouble if they couldn’t stay out of the box, and the first three games have verified that particular concern. Yes, maintaining consistent on-ice discipline is almost inevitably a growing pain among young inexperienced teams like the Devils— especially if they’re playing at this time of year.
What’s frustrating are the types of penalties being taken, and (more importantly) when during games. In Game two, Ben Lovejoy’s second period delay of game penalty led to Alex Killorn’s go-ahead goal, while the unsportsmanlike committed by Kyle Palmieri, created the situational circumstances behind Killorn’s second that night, which made it 5-1 (it could have been a different game if the Devils were faced with a 4-3 deficit instead of 5-3).
The carry-over penalties by Greene and Coleman respectively led to Tampa’s first and second goals of last night’s game, both of which gave them a temporary lead. With less than three minutes left and the Devils sustaining their one-goal lead, Taylor Hall then trips Brayden Point. While some might say it was a moot call and the Devils did a remarkable job killing the penalty (getting two empty net goals in the process), it was ultimately an instance where the Devils seemed like they were trying to find the hardest way possible of winning.
Considering how the Devils are already the inferior team in terms of depth and talent, they can’t afford to be taking any kind of careless penalty (like a delay of game or unsportsmanlike), let alone any lazy or reckless infractions. Most of these penalties are a result of the player’s frustration spending most of the night chasing the puck, having very far and between scoring chances, and spending so much time in their own zone. A seasoned playoff team like the Lightning knows young and inexperienced squads like New Jersey are susceptible to eventual breakdowns that will result in scoring chances or penalties. As soon as New Jersey becomes aware of this, they have a chance to regroup in five-on-five situations, and become more consciously aware of their actions on the ice, in a weary effort to avoid jeopardizing their team’s narrow window in this series by staying out of the penalty box.