Game 32: Tampa Bay Lightning @ New Jersey Devils

The Tampa Bay Lightning (18-10-3, 39 PTS), having outlasted the Wings at home on Thursday, begin their latest road trip against the New Jersey Devils (12-15-6, 30 PTS), which made a game of things but came up short in the comeback department after spotting the Penguins a three-goal, first period lead last night.

The Bolts wound up on the losing end of a low-event affair at the Prudential Center (where Tampa Bay has lost five of its last seven matches) the last time the two clubs met in late October. New Jersey was the beneficiary of a couple fortuitous breaks, with one coming while shorthanded, that sprung odd-man rushes — one was a breakaway resulting from a sequence involving two of the league’s elder statesmen — which the hosts capitalized on. It’s probably safe to assume tonight will bring more of the same, with the Devils working feverishly to clog the neutral zone and force the Lightning to resort to dumping-and-chasing and one of the clubs managing to be a bit more opportunistic with its limited looks.

Tampa Bay remains stretched thin by injuries but the lineup will be getting a minor tweak tonight as rugged winger P.C. Labrie is reportedly set to return at the expense of young rearguard Mark Barberio. There’s also the emotional lift, for whatever that’s actually worth, of seeing Steven Stamkos skate for the first time since breaking his leg. New Jersey has its own slew of regulars it will be missing in forwards Ryan Carter, Ryane Clowe and Stephen Gionta as well defenders Peter Harrold, Adam Larsson.

While the Bolts, having gone 6-5-3 in Stamkos’ absence, have been able to tread water and, thanks to the club’s hot start, currently hold a tenuous lead on the Atlantic division’s last guaranteed playoff spot, the Devils find themselves in a much more precarious position, situated just outside the bottom-five in the league’s standings. It isn’t an insurmountable predicament as New Jersey is only a few points removed from the Metropolitan division’s final guaranteed postseason spot but given its collective body of work to this point, its missing the playoffs for the second-straight season — which would be made all the more disastrous in that the team has to forego its first-round selection in the next draft — makes for a sound bet.

There is precious little at the moment, outside of the mixture of promise in and performance from a young cadre of rearguards (Eric Gelinas, Adam Larsson and Jon Merrill) and forwards (Reid Boucher, Adam Henrique), that alleviates the stark reality the Devils face. The team’s free-agent ‘splashes’, if you can call them that, have underwhelmed as Clowe, signed as an obvious replacement for former winger David Clarkson, has been out for the majority of the season and Damien Brunner, signed after Ilya Kovalchuk bolted for the KHL, has provided sporadic production. It’s enough to make the resurgence of Jaromir Jagr noteworthy in a sad-trombone sort of way: at 41, he leads the team in goals (11) and points (15). Immediately trailing Jagr in production are a handful of vets all over the age of 30: forwards Patrik Elias (who is 37) and Dainus Zubrus (who is 35), defenseman Andy Greene (who is 31), forward Michael Ryder (who is 33) and defenseman Marek Zidlicky (who is 36).

Statistically, New Jersey is a bit of a curiosity. Despite being one of the best teams at carrying play, it is one of the more woeful in terms of generating attempts, which limits the amount of finishing it does. As always, the success it does have stems from its ability to stifle the opposition but the goaltending has be considered a disappointment as Martin Brodeur and Cory Schneider, who was acquired in a trade during this past summer’s draft, boast the 50th- and 39th-best 5v5 save percentages, respectively, among netminders with a minimum of 9 games played. In sum, the Devils amount to, essentially, the anti-Leafs.

Its frustrations aside, New Jersey very well may come out on top tonight and, for Tampa Bay, another road loss, especially against a club that has lost two-straight and has stumbled (albeit, this seems driven by a lot of poor puck-luck at evens and with the man-advantage) through its last ten games, would be another missed opportunity to bolster its own playoff aspirations. Whatever the outcome, though, one can’t help but sense two clubs with two drastically different near futures looming.


Season Series

New Jersey leads 1-0
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Special Teams

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Team stats cited from Extra Skater.

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