NEWARK, NJ — Just by looking down at one end of the ice, it was evident that Devils goaltender Cory Schneider, who endured a rollercoaster of a season that had many more valleys than peaks during the second half, was back in goal, getting the call to start Game 3 and making his first playoff start in five years.
However, as tonight’s must-win game for the Devils unfolded, and as Schneider looked and played more and more like the unquestioned No. 1 goalkeeper that he was to start the season in helping New Jersey make a surprise run to the postseason, teammate Blake Coleman turned to alternate captain Brian Boyle while sitting on the bench and gave a frank assessment of what he was seeing unfold in his team’s crease.
Schneider and the Devils are on the board in their Eastern Conference first round series, defeating the top-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning 5-2 on Monday night at the Prudential Center on the back of Schneider’s 34 saves, with a number of key stops coming with the Lightning holding two separate one-goal leads and on the verge of putting a stranglehold on their two-games-to-none series lead.
Schneider stood tall, stopping 27 of 28 Tampa Bay shots in the first two periods to allow the Devils to come from behind from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits to earn their first win in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since June of 2012 – Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.
“I was looking forward to it,” said Schneider, who came in to relieve Keith Kinkaid after Kinkaid was pulled during the Devils’ 5-3 loss to the Lightning in Game 2 on Saturday. “These are fun games, this is an exciting time of the year. There’s no real time to overthink it or to be nervous about it. We’ve had a fun year all year, and everything’s kind of reset for the playoffs. Starting over, starting fresh, having fun playing the game and tonight was a lot of fun.”
If there was anyone in need of a reset or refresh going into the playoffs, it was Schneider, who had a firm grip on the No. 1 goaltender position for the Devils until a groin injury suffered in a loss to Boston on Jan. 23 sidelined him for a month. Since then, Schneider saw his understudy, Keith Kinkaid, blossom into Lou Gehrig to Cory’s Wally Pipp, going 16-3-1 in his final 20 games and becoming the team’s Most Valuable Player not named Taylor Hall.
As the wins kept mounting for Kinkaid and the Devils, so was the frustration for Schneider, who only appeared in five games since late January, all of them resulting in losses. The nadir for Schneider came during the Devils’ West Coast road trip and a game on March 20 against San Jose, when he allowed four goals on only 18 shots and was pulled from the contest.
At that point, Kinkaid was clearly going to be the keeper that New Jersey’s playoff fortunes would be riding on, while Schneider was relegated to hoping that he would hear his name called in a key situation at some point before the season was over.
That moment came on Monday, and when the Devils needed a win to avoid what would have been a near-insurmountable 3-0 series deficit, the old Cory Schneider reappeared just in time.
“Ideally, you’d like to be in a position where you’re a leader on the team and you’re a big part of it,” Schneider said. “Sometimes things happen, but it doesn’t change how you feel about yourself or the way you go about your business. I’ve really tried to stay positive and stay upbeat, and I knew if we got to this point that I was going to have to probably do something at some point. I’ve tried to stay ready and be prepared, and fortunately it’s paid off so far. But it’s just one game.”
But it was a game that was a must-have for the Devils, and Schneider was able to instill confidence in his coaches just as much as he did with his teammates on the ice.
“Good things happen to really good people, and Cory is an excellent player,” said Devils head coach John Hynes. “He’s gone through struggles this year, but I can tell you that when he’s gone through the struggles, the type of teammate he was, his communication with the coaching staff, his work ethic, he always put the team first. He’s worked hard. He’s supported Keith [Kinkaid] very well, and Cory’s a heck of a goalie.
“I think that’s a tribute to him as a player and a person,” Hynes continued. “It’s nice to see him be able to get his opportunity tonight and really play well.”
It is easy to forget that, despite the fact that Schneider came into tonight losing 12 consecutive decisions (0-10-2 since Dec. 29), he was considered earlier in the season to be the most important piece to a possible Devils’ playoff run, and his play during the first part of the season was almost on a par with some of the best goaltenders in the National Hockey League. He now has his second chance and, along with helping New Jersey to make a comeback against the Lightning, is looking to prove that the old Cory Schneider is back – in more ways than one.
“For me, this is what I expect out of myself, and that’s never changed throughout the entire year,” Schneider said.
Saints and Sinners
Special teams giveth and special teams taketh away was the overriding theme of Tampa Bay’s loss tonight, scoring both their goals on the power play but committing a number of inopportune penalties to stunt momentum and provide the Devils enough lifelines that, eventually, they took advantage of in coming from behind to defeat the Lightning.
Asked what was the difference in the game, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper could not have been any more direct and terse.
“A lack of discipline,” Cooper said.
The good news for Tampa as it pertained to special teams was the the power play was on the money once again, as Alex Killorn and Steven Stamkos scored goals on the extra man to begin the second and third periods respectively, the Lightning’s fourth and fifth power play goals in this series so far. Stamkos’s goal, a wrist shot from the left circle that squeezed past the left arm and body of Devils goaltender Cory Schneider, gave Tampa a 2-1 advantage 38 seconds into the third period.
But there was that lack of discipline thing that reared its ugly head in the third period, however, and the most disappointing aspect of that was the number of penalties that took place in the offensive zone for the Lightning.
“Any momentum [New Jersey] gained in that game was just because of our penalties,” Cooper said. “It was just the type of penalties we took. Like every penalty was 200 feet from our net. You talk about that and we showed really good discipline for two periods. But it was just too bad because I thought, for sure, for two periods and when we got that go-ahead goal, I thought we had pretty good control of that game. But you can’t just keep taking penalties, where we took them.”
New Jersey’s game-tying goal, a wrist shot from defenseman Will Butcher at the 4:03 mark of the third period, came when the Devils were on a 5-on-3 advantage after Lightning center Cedric Paquette was called for a tripping penalty in the Devils’ zone and, one minute later, Alex Killorn mistakenly jumped onto the ice as teammate Yanni Gourde was skating to the bench to retrieve a new stick, prompting a penalty for too many men on the ice.
“We were our own worst nightmare tonight,” Cooper said.
Hall in the Family
It may be the first-ever postseason for Devils left winger Taylor Hall, but, after his first three games of Stanley Cup Playoffs action, Hall still is playing like a person with a point to prove to Hart Trophy voters.
Tonight’s game continued the rich vein of form from the National Hockey League’s frontrunner for league MVP, as Hall scored the game-tying goal in the second period and assisted on New Jersey’s subsequent two goals, including the game-winning goal from Stefan Noesen in the third period, as part of the 5-2 victory for the Devils.
Hall already has five points combined in this series, adding to the goal and assist he racked up in Game 1 last Thursday.
Midway through the second period, Hall pounced on a rolling puck in the slot and rocketed a slap shot past Tampa Bay goalkeeper Andrei Vasilevskiy to tie the game at 1-1 and provide some relief – as well as joy – to the Prudential Center crowd. Hall’s celebration, his head tilted skyward while gliding towards the boards, also had a hint of him feeling some relief. After the game, he revealed that it was a special game, in part, because of some of the people that attended the game in the Garden State.
“I was just really happy to score,” Hall said about his goal in the second period. “Playing a playoff game on home ice, I got my parents in the crowd, got a lot of friends watching and that was a big goal for our group. I was happy to see that one go in.”