This is rock bottom for the New Jersey Devils.
Led by Nate Thompson’s first career two goal game, the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Devils, 5-2, at the Prudential Center. The loss was the sixth straight for New Jersey, its longest losing streak since December of 2010.
The fact that it came against a Tampa Bay team that had just three wins in its last 15 games drove home the Devils struggles.
“We’re at the bottom,” Devils coach Pete DeBoer said after the game. “This is our adversity. Every team faces it at different points in the year. This is ours. I’m hoping this is rock bottom and we can start getting off the mat, getting up and on to bigger and better things.”
Anders Linback made 25 saves for Tampa Bay, snapping a two-game losing streak.
Thompson’s second goal of the game came in the third period, opening a seemingly insurmountable 4-0 lead. Corey Conacher started the play, chipping a puck off the boards near the benches and skating around Bryce Salvador. He carried into the right circle and found the trailing Thompson with a pass in the slot. Ondrej Palat screened Devils back Keith Kinkaid, and Thompson had the whole net, depositing his shot in the upper corner for his fifth goal of the season.
The lead wasn’t as safe as it seemed. New Jersey rallied for two quick goals to cut the deficit to 4-2. With just over two minutes remaining, it looked like the Devils would move one closer. Sami Salo made the save of the game, knocking away a puck that got behind Lindback and almost crossed the goal line.
B.J. Crombeen iced the game, scoring an empty-net goal with 1:20 remaining in the regulation.
The victory snapped a five-game losing streak for the Lightning and evened the season series with the Devils. The two teams will meet one more time in Tampa Bay.
The Lightning scored three goals on its first 11 shots, chasing Devils starter Johan Hedberg in the second period.
Thompson capitalized on a turnover to put Tampa Bay ahead in the first period.
Palat stole the puck from Salvador in the right corner, but his pass deflected off the stick of Travis Zajac. Conacher batted it down in the right circle, sending a pass to an open Thompson in the slot. The Lightning left wing deflected it past the pads of Hedberg for his fourth goal of the season.
It was the seventh straight game New Jersey allowed the first goal. They’re 1-5-1 in those games.
“We got behind the eight ball,” Salvador said. “We were playing catch up hockey the whole time. It’s pretty tough doing that in this league.”
The line of Alexander Killorn, Vincent Lecavlier and Martin St. Louis took over in the second period.
St. Louis scored his sixth goal of the season at 5:53 of the middle period, finishing off a three-on-two rush. Lecavlier carried the puck over the Devils blue line before finding Killorn with a pass in the left circle. He quickly sent the puck to St. Louis, who was alone at the right post. He beat the pad of a diving Hedberg to put Tampa Bay ahead, 2-0.
Killorn scored his fourth of the season later in the period. He collected a loose puck in the corner of the Devils zone and curled into the left circle, skating around Salvador and into the slot. His shot beat Hedberg through the pads.
DeBoer pulled Hedberg after that goal, inserting rookie Kinkaid into the game. DeBoer was impressed with the young goalie’s first NHL appearance.
“I thought he did a good job for his first game,” he said. “He stepped in there, gave us some energy. I thought if we snuck the kid in their, the guys would get a heightened sense of desperation. He made a couple of big saves there.”
His biggest came just over a minute into the third period. Steven Stamkos knocked the puck away from Andy Greene at the Tampa Bay blue line and beat the Devils defenseman to the puck. He moved in alone on Kinkaid, faking a shot to the left before dragging it to his forehand and firing low to the right. The Devils goalie stretched out the left pad, denying Stamkos and keeping the deficit at three.
“I just made him make the move and stayed with him,” Kinkaid said. “The crowd went wild. It was a great moment for me to start off.”
Adam Henrique denied Lindback his first shutout of the season with a short-handed goal at 13:44 of the third period. Ryan Carter dug the puck out of the corner, sending a pass through his legs to Henrique in the left circle. The Devils center moved in alone on Lindback before sliding a backhand shot through his legs for the score.
New Jersey leads the league with six short-handed goals.
The Devils converted on a power play to bring the score to 4-2. Ilya Kovalchuk fired a shot from the left point that Lindback stopped. Zajac pounced on the rebound, taking two shots that Lindback turned aside. Patrik Elias cut into the slot, finding the puck and sending it past the diving Tampa Bay goalie at the right post for his sixth goal of the season.
New Jersey couldn’t finish the comeback effort. The Devils started the season 8-1-3 and sat first in the Eastern Conference. The losing streak cost them that and much more. The eighth place New York Rangers sit one point behind New Jersey, and the ninth place Philadelphia Flyers are just two points away.
That start is keeping them afloat. A few more losses could put the Devils on the outside of the playoff picture.
“We just have to keep going, keep battling and keep our heads up,” Henrique told Inside Hockey. “We have a confident group in here. We’re not panicking.”
Moments like these can make or break a season, especially a shortened season when each point lost costs more in the standings.
“A stretch like this can define a team,” Salvador told Inside Hockey. “You don’t want to be going through these. Adversity is a character test. We’re going to put this one behind us and we have a big game against Buffalo [Thursday].”
Carter has four assists in his last three games. The right wing returned from a concussion in the Devils 4-3 shootout loss Saturday in Buffalo.
Kinkaid became the youngest goalie to play for New Jersey since J.F. Damphousse on January 24, 2002. Damphousse lost that game, 4-2, to the Atlanta Thrashers.
The Devils broke an 0-for-18 stretch on the power play with their third period power-play tally. It is the only goal New Jersey has scored on the man advantage during their current six-game losing streak.
Stamkos saw his 10-game point streak come to an end tonight. The center finished with two shots and a minus-1 rating.