TAMPA — No matter how much a team practices, it’s difficult to replicate the intensity of a game while waiting for the next opponent.
Such was the case this week for the Lightning. They returned from a three-game West Coast trip Sunday and had to wait until Thursday for their next game action.
On Thursday, they started slowly against the Devils, a fast-skating team with plenty of youth, and made little mistakes that proved costly.
It took a four-minute penalty kill late in the second period for a wakeup call, and the Lightning came away with a 3-2 win in the opener of a three-game homestand.
“When you come back from the coast and you have the time off and the time change and all of that, especially how well we played against San Jose (in a 7-1 win Saturday), it’s tough to get back,” coach Jon Cooper said. “But I have to give the guys credit for coming back in this one and grinding it out.”
Tampa Bay (29-10-5) started in a rut, spending the first 10 minutes of the game reacting to New Jersey instead of controlling the puck. The Devils had seven straight shots by the halfway mark of the first period; the Lightning had two.
“Sometimes after not playing for a couple of days, you’re trying to find your legs early,” forward Mathieu Joseph said. “(The Devils) came out flying.”
It didn’t help that Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev’s high-sticking penalty 3:10 into the game aided the Devils. Defenseman Damon Severson scored on the power play for a 1-0 lead.
Once the Lightning stopped turning over pucks and started creating better scoring chances, their rhythm started to click.
“I would say New Jersey played well, but on our side, we were rusty, we were off on our execution,” Cooper said. “I thought as that first period went on, we were kind of getting our game back.”
Less than two minutes into the second period, forward Alex Killorn put the Lightning on the board on Tampa Bay’s first power-play opportunity of the night.
Then more than halfway through the period, Lightning defenseman Jan Rutta took a four-minute high-sticking penalty. It was the jolt Tampa Bay needed to take more control of the game.
Joseph, on the penalty kill, picked off the puck at the blue line and scored a shorthanded goal against New Jersey goaltender Jon Gillies for a 2-1 lead.
And though the teams traded goals in the third period — Anthony Cirelli scored the winner for Tampa Bay midway through the period, one minute after New Jersey had tied the score at 2 — the Lightning’s rust had mostly worn off as they fought off a 6-on-5 situation for the last 2:37 of the game.
But the Lightning, winners of six of their past seven games, know they need more consistency before facing the Pacific Division-leading Golden Knights on Saturday.
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“I thought it was kind of a roller-coaster game,” Joseph said. “Maybe missing a little but of consistency here and there, but we found a way to win.
“It was a team effort, and they’re not going to all be pretty, but I thought we did a good job.”
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