The Tampa Bay Lightning, to their credit, played hard Friday night, but continued their long history of struggle against the New Jersey Devils, falling to a 5-2 defeat before a St. Pete Times Forum crowd of 18,736. The loss marked the 11th time over the last 12 meetings between these clubs that the Lightning came up short; a stretch that dates back to 2007.
Tampa Bay jumped out to an early lead, scoring on their first shot of the game, as Steven Stamkos blasted the puck past New Jersey netminder Martin Brodeur at 5:06 into the opening period. The power play goal, assisted by Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, was goal number 32 for Stamkos, tying him for the lead in that category with Sidney Crosby. The goal was also the NHL leading 14th power play goal for the Lightning All-Star.
New Jersey evened the score at 7:59 when Ilya Kovalchuck snapped a wrist shot from the slot that beat Lightning starting goalie Dwayne Roloson.
The Devils made it two goals on two consecutive shots just 80 seconds later, as Brian Rolston scored from the top of the left faceoff circle.
New Jersey continued the first period assault with scores by Patrick Elias and a short-handed tally by Travis Zajac, finally chasing Roloson, who allowed four goals on nine shots, to the bench late in the stanza in favor of Dan Ellis.
Once the opening period was in the books at 4-1 New Jersey, it was all over except for the shouting, and some cheering, too, as Martin St. Louis took a pass from Stamkos and broke in alone on Brodeur and netted a highlight-reel goal as he spun and backhanded the puck into the net for his 19th score of the season. The assist from Stamkos marked his 200th point of his career and Victor Hedman also earned an assist on the play.
The goal by St. Louis at 14:55 of the second period cut the New Jersey lead to 4-2, but that was as close as Tampa Bay would come, despite outshooting the Devils by a 12 – 6 margin in the final period and 32 shots to 25 overall.
Kovalchuk made it two goals on two shots late in the third period when he finished the scoring for the night with an unassisted score against Ellis, who wrapped up the night with 15 saves on 16 shots.
Lightning coach Guy Boucher was quick to praise New Jersey and their strong first period for the win.
“They had a great start. I have to give them credit,” Boucher said. “The Devils are really picking it up in terms of drive and what they need to do.”
Tampa Bay will have an opportunity to get back into the win column when they play Saturday night against the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh. Looking ahead, Boucher sounded a cautionary tone.
“Carolina is red-hot right now in the league,” Boucher said. “They didn’t play tonight and I pushed some of our guys. I went with two lines at the end. I can’t quit.”
Beyond outshooting and outhitting (24-14) the Devils there was little for Tampa Bay to feel good about tonight except perhaps this: New Jersey appears on the schedule this season only one more time, on February 25th, to close out Tampa Bay’s upcoming 12 game home stand. With New Jersey languishing in last place in the Eastern Conference, there will be no post-season play for them, so after one more meeting, there will be no more Devils for the Lightning to deal with until next season.
That certainly is the best news of the night.
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