NEWARK, N.J. — If the playoffs began today, the Lightning would face the Devils.
Judging from Saturday — and the teams' regular-season series — Tampa Bay would be wise not to take them lightly.
The Devils, sitting in the Eastern Conference's second wild-card spot, were coming off a season-long six game road trip and had beaten the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins on Friday night. Yet New Jersey gave the Lightning all it could handle, defeating Tampa Bay 2-1 at the Prudential Center.
The Devils swept the season series, the only team to beat Tampa Bay three times this season.
"They're a desperate team, fighting every day just to get in," said veteran wing Chris Kunitz, a four-time Cup champion. "We have to be able to match that urgency to play with a team flying as high as they are.
"We have to be better."
That'll be the case no matter which team Tampa Bay (51-20-4) faces to open the playoffs. Associate coach Rick Bowness said first-round series are always the most dangerous ones because the opponent had to scratch and claw its way in. There's not much margin for error as it is.
"Eight teams from each conference make it," coach Jon Cooper said. "And there's not a lot of points separating them."
It's not like the Lightning played poorly Saturday. It racked up 70 shot attempts (36 on goal) and created a number of quality chances. It did a better job defensively than it had in recent games, especially Thursday's 7-6 win over the Islanders in which the Lightning nearly blew a four-goal, third period lead.
The Lightning's scoring just dried up, with Ondrej Palat's power-play goal in third all it could muster.
"It's funny how the game works," Cooper said. "Last game you put up seven. The next game you put up one. And you can sit here and argue maybe we had a better night last game."
The Devils took a two-goal lead. Rookie Nico Hischier battled for position in front of the Lightning net and pounced on a rebound late in the first period. Kyle Palmieri scored a goal-scorer's goal midway through the second on a wrist shot from the slot.
Other than that, goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was really good. He made 29 saves and gave the Lightning a chance to win. It was the first game in which he allowed two goals or fewer since Feb. 28.
Give credit to the Devils, too.
"That team plays really disciplined in their structure. They make it hard on you," J.T. Miller said. "It's hard to make plays."
Penalties were an issue again for Tampa Bay. It took two too-many-men penalties Thursday against the Islanders, and it was charged with a momentum-thwarting faceoff-violation penalty on J.T. Miller late in the second period against the Devils. The latter negated what should have been a two-minute Lightning power play. It seemed like a 50-50 call.
"I don't want to talk about it," Miller said.
Palat, in just his third game back after missing 26 with a lower-body injury, put in a rebound on a power play four minutes into the third to cut the Devils' lead to one. With about two minutes left, Ryan McDonagh had a golden opportunity to tie it. Situated by the left post, McDonagh smacked his stick on the ice, calling for the puck. But his shot hit the left post.
It was that kind of night.
"(The Devils) play with speed and a paced game that is almost similar to us," Kunitz said. "We've got to do a better job if we're going to face this team in the playoffs."
Devils 1 1 0 2
Lightning 0 0 1 1
First Period—1, New Jersey, Hischier 18 (Butcher, Mueller), 17:51. Penalties—Moore, NJ, (holding), 18:36; Hedman, TB, (hooking), 19:50.
Second Period—2, New Jersey, Palmieri 21 (Hall, Zacha), 10:59. Penalties—Gibbons, NJ, (hooking), 18:19; Miller, TB, (delay of game), 18:19.
Third Period—3, Tampa Bay, Palat 9 (Sergachev, Point), 4:22 (pp). Penalties—Butcher, NJ, (tripping), 2:27. Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 14-10-12—36. New Jersey 11-13-7—31. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 1 of 2; New Jersey 0 of 1. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 42-15-3 (31 shots-29 saves). New Jersey, Kinkaid 21-10-2 (36-35). A—16,514 (16,514). T—2:33. Referees—Kevin Pollock, Kyle Rehman. Linesmen—Steve Miller, Tim Nowak.