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18 April 2007

Adapt or Die

Welcome to the new NHL.

If the Devils are going to beat Tampa Bay, they need to play to their strengths - and Tampa Bay's weaknesses.

The Devils can't trap Tampa to death. The Lightning's passing have shattered the trap, breaking straight through a defense which has been the Devils' bread and butter since Jacques Lemaire and the 1995 championship. Lecavalier and St. Louis skate right through a trap which no longer features Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko, and Bobby Holik to physically punish them and take them off their game. They're too big, too strong, and are too good at controlling the puck.

The Devils can't out-forecheck Tampa. Whatever the weaknesses of Tampa's bottom lines, physicality isn't one of them. In games 2 and 3 Tampa came out and punished the Devils, taking the play to the Devils end of the ice, and playing to their strengths - and the Devils' weakness. Andy Greene, Johnny Oduya, Paul Martin, and Brian Rafalski are very good hockey players - Andy Greene is much better than I thought, he's been great - but they buckle under the pressure applied to them. There's no Scott Stevens, no Scott Niedermayer.

But in game 4, the Devils did what they are going to need to do to beat Tampa Bay. And it sounds completely insane, on the face of it.

If the Devils are going to beat the Lightning, they're going to do it playing firewagon hockey.

I know, it sounds ridiculous. But think about it - the Devils are built to be a skating team. The checking line, once Bobby Holik and Randy McKay, is now John Madden and Sergei Brylin, players who can take the puck and move it out fast on their feet. They can't stop Lecavalier and St. Louis, but they can tie them up a little and skate it out on the counterattack. Tampa Bay has two lines comprised of three players - Lecavalier, St. Louis, and Richards - who are run ragged by Tortorella even if they are playing against the trapping, sitting-back New Jersey Devils. If the Devils start to make them skate on every shift, that fatigue will play more of a factor than it does currently.

Moreover, everyone on the Devils can skate (with the exception of Mike Rupp). The EGG line looks lethargic, but they're not playing to their strengths - they're sitting in the neutral game, waiting for the game to come to them. They've got to take the game to Tampa, to the third and fourth lines of the Lightning. Make them skate with you, don't bring yourself down and skate with them. The Parise line is much the same way - skate with them! Take the game to them! Let them take it back against you - the Devils are never going to be a bad neutral-zone team, and the skating defensemen will be better suited for an end-to-end matchup. Besides, you've still got Lukowich and Matvichuk to play the other game if necessary - and Lukowich is no slouch on his skates, either.

Call me crazy. The Devils are losing when they try to play Devils hockey against Tampa Bay. But when they play Tampa hockey against Tampa bay, things seem to change. The chances start adding up for the Devils, the flow starts going back towards Tampa, and quickly, instead of a slow drag into the Devils defensive zone, allowing Lecavalier and St. Louis to set up their deadly offense. Yeah, Tampa's deadly in transition too, don't get me wrong, but they'll get tired faster playing the skating game instead of the trapping game and Tortorella doesn't have the bench to go to once he's past his superstars.

Plus, Tampa's defense completely fell apart tonight once the Devils changed the game on them. Parise got open. Gomez got open. Elias got open. Holes opened up in the ice as the tide turned as the typical Devils iceberg turned into a river. Don't get me wrong, you'll see the Devils defense have issues too - but at least they'll be areas where the Devils are playing to a strength of 2/3 of their defense, instead of the trapping game which they really aren't suited to play anymore without Stevens or Daneyko.

These aren't the same old Devils anymore. It's time they stopped trying to play the game like they were. If they don't, Tampa's going to eat them alive, slowly, one goal at a time.

1 fanatics have replied:

Bleu, Blanc et Rouge said...

Great post, the Lightning are in fact matching the Devils in most aspects of their game.

After that "Holmqvist must be better" quote in your previous post, you kind of turned things around for the youngster (who has still outplayed Brodeur so far) and have put down your franchise player.

Funny how things work.

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