That makes three straight wins for the Devils after Saturday's debacle in Pittsburgh. Tonight wasn't quite the thorough end-to-end effort the Devils put forth against the Islanders on Sunday, but I thought they played a better overall game tonight than Tuesday's win over the Rangers. Some thoughts...
Peak form: After Wednesday's optional practice, Pete DeBoer said he thought the Devils were getting close to their peak form. Tonight's win was pretty good evidence of that. The Devils played one of the more complete games I've seen them play this year and that bodes well as they navigate through a pretty difficult stretch of games. It wasn't perfect -- they played with fire in the middle of the second period -- but it had everything you wanted to see. There was goal scoring from primary players and the second line of Elias, Henrique and Clarkson continued to produce points. The defense even got in on the act. More importantly, the Devils had maybe their most consistent forecheck of the season and were aggressive and physical right off the bat. As usual, Marty was solid most of the game and very good when he needed to be, although his puck handling still gives me agita at times this season. Eventually they'll need to cut down on the penalties (we'll get to that in a minute) and the close wasn't nearly as strong as DeBoer would like, but as the Devils string together good game after good game, it's fair to wonder what the ceiling for this team is this season. Entering the season, many pegged the Devils simply as playoff contenders, but after Thursday night they're only one point out of first in the Atlantic almost a quarter of the way through this shortened season. Dare to dream, Devils fans. Dare to dream.
Kovy: After six games without a goal, the drought is finally over. It felt like Kovy was on a mission to end it from the jump, too. He was firing at the net almost every time he got the puck -- except for on odd-man rushes, which was just him trying too hard to be unselfish. When he finally got selfish and held onto the puck on a 2-on-1 rush, he snapped one into the net on a shot only about 15 players in the NHL can take and execute. He finished with a goal and two assists, but he probably could have had at least another goal, if not two. As DeBoer and Kovy kept saying, it was just a matter of time before the pucks started going in the net. Being the kind of player Kovy is, I wouldn't be surprised if they start going in the net in bunches. When Kovy gets hot, the Devils are normally very tough to beat. With this Devils team, with the way the second and third lines are contributing and the way Marty is playing, if Kovy gets hot, they are going to be extremely tough to play against on a night-to-night basis.
You're killin' me: Are the four penalties a night something we'll just have to get used to? I hope not, because eventually the Devils penalty kill won't be perfect. For now, though, it is. After killing off four Tampa Bay power plays tonight, the Devils are now 19-0 on the PK over the last four games. They also continue to be very aggressive offensively despite being a man down. Kovy's goal tonight was of the short-handed variety and there was another one earlier in the season that came just after the penalty expired. Aggressiveness is the key to everything the Devils do and that's no different on the penalty kill. There was really only one power play when the Lightning got sustained pressure but thanks to Marty and some missed chances by Tampa, they didn't get on the board. The penalties are still something I worry about, but as long they continue to force the issue and push the play out of their own end, the Devils should be able to navigate them for the time being.
Silent night: Here I was all excited to watch Steven Stamkos at least put on some sort of show and outside of a couple chances, he was mostly silent. Make no mistake, that was very much by design, because as Stamkos goes, so do the Lightning. Martin St. Louis is still very good and Vincent Lecavalier appears rejuvenated (although his stick may need some work, right Chico?), but the Lightning's offense flows through their stud and tonight he was very much closed in by a physical Devils defense. The Lightning didn't have a ton of possession time in the Devils' zone and that kept them from being able to set up shooting opportunities for Stamkos. Now, if only the Devils can do that this weekend.
Redemption?: DeBoer said after the game that the Penguins taught the Devils a lesson last weekend. Well, this weekend the Devils get the chance to pay their division rivals back with a weekend home and home that starts in Newark at 1 p.m. on Saturday. It won't be easy, though. As well as the Devils are playing, the Penguins are on fire. They've won five straight by scores of 3-0, 5-1, 6-3, 4-2 and 5-2. As you can imagine, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are on fire and both averaging more than a point a game, while secondary scorers Chris Kunitz (5 goals, 10 points) and James Neal (3 goals, 5 points) are creating their own headaches for opposing teams. The last time these two teams met was the second game of that streak, 5-1 bloodletting in which the Devils' defensive zone coverage completely broke down. The Devils must be very careful, because the Pens are very similar in the fact that they can turn a play around on a dime with their aggressiveness. Unlike the Devils, the Penguins can, and often do, score goals in bunches. I'm still not convinced this is a Devils team that can play goal-for-goal with a team as talented like the Penguins, but if the Devils want to at least split this weekend, they'll need to avoid that type of game. It's more important the Devils come out of this weekend with at least one win and two solid efforts. Getting run off the ice in either of these games could be a bit of a buzzkill to all the momentum the Devils have built lately.
Notes: You have to wonder if the consistent pressure eventually frustrated the Lightning, whose coach melted down in the final minutes of the third. If not for the rash of penalties late in the third, it could have been a different game. ... Stefan Matteau played 10:07 tonight, which is the second-most ice time he's gotten in a game this season. It was also the most impressive he looked this season, particularly in the offensive end. I wonder if he'll still be in the lineup Saturday and Sunday against Pittsburgh ... Speaking of which, why is Krys Barch dressed every night? I realize tonight was due to a lack of depth on the wing, but man, four minutes a night sure seems like a waste of an active roster spot. ... Kovy's goal was timely and important, but his play-making skills are sometimes just impressive. He continues to set up his teammates with great chances. I have to think it's only a matter of time before he gets Travis Zajac going ... Adam Henrique's goal was so impressive for a number of reasons. One, he won the draw after the ref booted Patrik Elias and then had the sense to go to the front of the net. Two, he once again found a loose puck to bury. Three, he went down on his knees to get better leverage against the Lightning defenseman while trying to slap the rebound into the net. The kid is special. ... Adam Larsson had what I like to call "a lesson game." He made a bad decision on a 2-on-1 rush and forced Marty to make a great save to stop a goal. Those are plays that come with experience, which he hopefully continues to get. ... Oh, and for those that are wondering, don't expect the NHL to change the 1 p.m. start time or postpone Saturday's game despite the impending "blizzard." The schedule's already a mess as it is and both teams and the officials will be in town for the game. The show must go on, as they say.