Well, Sunday night went partly as I expected.
In Chicago, the United Center crowd was treated to a dandy between the Sharks and Blackhawks. Trailing by one, with Ray Emery pulled from net and just over a minute remaining, the Blackhawks converted on a deflected puck to send the battle to overtime. Then, only 34 seconds into the extra frame, Patrick Sharp beat goaltender Antti Niemi on a rebound attempt to seal a shocking comeback win over San Jose, 3-2. The victory puts Chicago only one point behind the Wild for the top spot in the Western Conference.
However, the other contest was far more disappointing. The Florida Panthers were crushed at Madison Square Garden, 6-1, by the impressive Rangers. New York scored two in the first, and four in the second to complete its largest margin of victory on the season. Henrik Lundqvist picked up the victory between the pipes with 20 saves, while Jose Theodore was pulled after allowing all six goals on 22 shots.
As for Monday, there is only one game on the NHL schedule. So, let’s look at all you’ll need to know heading into the matchup.
This matchup features two clubs who are currently nonexistent in the Eastern Conference playoff scenario because of recent poor play. Tampa Bay has lost six of seven, and has given its opponents no less than three goals in each defeat. The shaky defensive effort has catapulted the Lightning to 27th in the NHL in goals allowed per game. Similarly, the Devils have lost five of seven with three of the losses coming at home. Offensive consistency has been their issue as they are only recording 2.3 tallies per game. The clubs will look to get back on track in their second battle of the year. On November 19th, New Jersey used two power play goals to upend the Lightning, 4-2, in this same arena. So far, the Devils are 8-8-0 on the road, while Tampa Bay is a respectable 7-4-0 at St. Pete Times Forum.
Players To Watch
New Jersey: Ilya Kovalchuk, Left Wing
Despite struggles from the Devil offense recently, Ilya Kovalchuk has been on his game. Kovalchuk has recorded seven points in his last seven games after picking up only 11 in the first 16. Overall, his 18 points are fourth best on the team, and his eight goals are second. During his first matchup with the Lightning, he was held to only two shots on goal, and zero points. I’m interested to see if he can adapt this time around and continue the streak of solid play since the Tampa Bay defense has been horrid at times in 2011.
Tampa Bay: Steven Stamkos, Center
Most machines require regular oiling to be successful. Steven Stamkos is the oil to the offensive attack of the Lightning. His 30 points and 16 goals lead the team, while his 14 assists are second. The closest statistical competitor on the roster is Marc-Andre Bergeron who has only accumulated 22 points. Stamkos has already put together two point streaks of at least six games, and he has recorded two or more points in seven contests. However, he is currently facing two-game scoreless stretch. If he is stopped again Monday, it will be the first time this year that he goes three straight games without a point.
Stat to Watch
The New Jersey Devils are unbelievable on the penalty kill this season. In fact, opponents convert on less than 7 percent of their power play opportunities when facing the stingy Devil defense, which is the best in the NHL. New Jersey recently bolstered this ranking by putting together a phenomenal streak of nine straight games without allowing a power play goal (opponents were zero for 32 during stretch).
However, entering Monday’s contest, the Devils have allowed one power play goal in two straight games for the first time this season. If New Jersey doesn’t fix the small gap in its defensive strategy on the penalty kill, perhaps the Lightning will be able to capitalize. They were a crippling zero for six in the first matchup. Watch this statistic closely, because if the Devils are back on their game, they will be tough to beat.
Even with the home ice, it is hard to pick the Lightning in this one. Both teams are ranked in the bottom third of the league on the offensive end, but the Devils certainly have the advantage on defense. Also, while Tampa Bay may have the better star player, New Jersey has the more complete offensive roster to this point in the season — eight players on its team with more than 10 points, to only six for TB. So, if Stamkos is to be slowed once again, it is likely that the Lightning will find themselves in trouble. Expect a close one, but I’m sticking with who I think is the better team.
Devils 4, Lightning 3