In the second of three games against the Lightning this week, the Devils showed resiliency but still came up short in the shootout.
This game was equally as frustrating as it was exhilarating. The Devils started super slow, unable to get much of anything going for most of the first period. Akira Schmid looked fantastic and made some unbelievable saves. The Lightning were able to slow down and frustrate the Devils for long stretches of the game with a heavy forecheck and smart defense clogging up the middle of the ice. The Devils came back to tie the game three separate times. This game and it’s several ups and downs showed that the Devils aren’t that far off from the three time defending Eastern Conference champions, even if the styles of play are very different. This game definitely has me feeling better than the Tuesday’s game.
I think the most important thing we saw tonight was the play of Akira Schmid. Yes, he allowed three goals on just 24 shots, but he made some outstanding saves to keep the Devils from falling behind by multiple goals including this save of the year candidate. Akira was very strong when the Devils were under pressure from the Lightning and kept the Devils within striking distance of tying the game or taking the lead at all times. He came up big and never allowed the Devils to fall behind by two goals. Schmid has now played in 15 NHL games for the Devils this year and has a save percentage of .924 and a goals against average of 1.98. With the well documented struggles of Blackwood, and the recent struggle of Vanecek, Schmid is proving to be a highly valuable piece to the puzzle for New Jersey. It can be argued that Schmid is the Devils most reliable goalie as things stand right now. As a result, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Devils went with three goalies on the roster when Blackwood comes back from his most recent injury.
That Tatar Hischier Mercer line is firing on all cylinders right now. They seem to create multiple high danger chances every game and score in almost every game. Tomas Tatar had a disappointing season last year but now the pending UFA is making his case to get a contract extension in New Jersey. Such a sentence was unthinkable 12 months ago, but Tatar now has 16 goals and is an invaluable piece to the Devils top line. Dawson Mercer had a strong rookie season last year and now looks like one of the best young players in the entire league with 22 goals and 28 assists so far this year. Nico Hischier is continuing to silence his doubters with 63 points in 67 games this season. Aside from the offense, all three players are very good in the defensive end, especially HIschier and Mercer. Every cup contending team needs an elite top line that can be trusted in all three zones and the Devils have that right now with these three.
Timo Meier has struggled to find his place on the Devils. He’s played on a few different lines, even in tonight’s game, Meier played on multiple lines and played multiple positions on the power play. He’s starting to look more comfortable and that’s fantastic news for hockey fans in the Garden State but its horrible news for fans of every other NHL team. If the Devils are able to get Meier as comfortable and productive as he was in San Jose, the Devils will be tough for any team to eliminate in the playoffs next month. Meier is an elite power forward with a lethal shot and the rest of his teammates have more than enough speed to burn just about every other roster in the league. The Devils with Meier clicking are easily a top two team in the NHL.
This game was obviously not all positive as the Devils power play struggled early, the Lightning were able to control large parts of the game, and the Devils never had the lead. However, I think what we saw tonight shows that the Devils are capable of playing with anyone, even the defending three time Eastern Conference champions. The Devils showed that even with their backs against the wall, they have what it takes to come back and tie the game multiple times against one of the NHL’s best goalies. A win would obviously have been preferred but there are many positives about the way this team looks right now. Sunday night will be another important test as the Devils will get this same Lightning team again, this time in Tampa Bay.