Early success vs. Devils might foretell more good for Lightning
It has taken the New Jersey Devils and Tampa Bay Lightning five months of the season to finally face one another, but the two Eastern Conference playoff clubs are in the middle of making up for lost time.
On Thursday night for the second time in three days -- both in Newark, New Jersey -- the teams will square off in the middle of their trio of matchups.
In the culmination of what will have something of a best-of-seven series playoff feel to it, the final meeting will take place Sunday in Tampa -- three inter-divisional tilts between them in six days.
In a surprising development shortly before puck dropped Tuesday, the Lightning's Steven Stamkos didn't participate in the pregame skate and was ruled out.
Stamkos, 33, hurt his left leg in the first period Saturday against Chicago and left the game. But he played 17:49 in Sunday's 3-2 home loss to the Winnipeg Jets.
In Stamkos' stead, Brandon Hagel stepped up to the top line at left wing beside Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov.
Hagel responded with his 24th tally and two assists, and Tampa Bay scored four straight times in a 4-1 victory at New Jersey.
"It's weird. You come in and we're almost in Game 70 and we haven't seen this team yet," coach Jon Cooper said afterward. "You watch them on tape and they're as advertised. They're fast, they've got skill and make plays. They're tough to defend."
The match was the first meeting between first-year Devils player Ondrej Palat and the former club he won two Stanley Cups with during a decade on Florida's Gulf Coast.
Palat, 31, signed a five-year, $30 million deal with the Metropolitan Division club in free agency last July. The third-line left winger has 94 points in 138 career playoff games.
A close friend of New Jersey's No. 18 who wore the same number when he played in Tampa, the Lightning's Anthony Cirelli said the bond he has with Palat won't be broken because he swapped Lightning blue for Devils red.
"He meant a lot, obviously," said Cirelli, who scored short-handed Tuesday. "I could go to him with anything, hockey-related or off the ice, whatever. On the ice, he was a warrior who battled for everything and helped us win two (Cups).
"It's ... weird playing against him, but he's always going to be a great friend of mine."
Devils coach Lindy Ruff said the blame wasn't on goaltender Vitek Vanecek, who made 26 saves but surrendered three tallies on seven shots in the second period.
"I look at his last game and I look at how well he played. He wasn't the guy that was turning pucks over. He wasn't the guy to give up the short-handed goal," said Ruff. "You can always go to the goaltender. If he didn't make some of the saves he made last game, I might be standing, explaining the same thing to you again."
Tuesday also marked the debut of Curtis Lazar, who was acquired from the Vancouver Canucks for a 2024 fourth-round draft pick.
Lazar, 28, played 10:07 at right wing on the fourth line in place of Nathan Bastion (upper body).
Through two periods, left winger Miles Wood skated just 5:07 on the line with Lazar and Michael McLeod and wasn't on the bench in the final frame.
--Field Level Media
Updated March 15, 2023