After A Rocky Reality Check On The Road, The Devils Desperately Need To Find Their Poise At The Prudential Center
Not so coincidentally, it's never the team that's used and, in the case of Tampa Bay fans and their mind-numbingly obnoxious children's toys, abused their home ice advantage that is left banging the drum and loudly repeating to anyone that will listen that a playoff series doesn't truly start until a team loses in their own building. I don't think that overused phrase was coined solely to give hope to the hopeless so there is probably some merit to it, but if the Devils' confidence and consistency doesn't match their urgency then that well of wishes will run dry very, very quickly.
If there's one thing that could be said about a young team that was resilient in its constant surpassing of expectations it's that, even when the standings appeared the bleakest and the schedule looked the most daunting, they never let one mistake lead to another. The Devils may have been short on experience while desperately clinging to their playoff spot all season, but they were also short on memory. The exact opposite could be said about the last two games in which stretches of play plagued by tentativeness, indiscipline, disorganization, and a lack of focus have dug them into meteoric holes that would have Chilean miners considering the ensuing uphill battle a pointless one.
The first period may have been better this time around, but it was much of the same in regards to quickly crumbling due to self-destructive plays. Instead of an egregious turnover or two, it was a poorly-timed change that left Andy Greene and Damon Severson staring at each other like two kids who knocked into a vase while playing ball in the house and were more concerned about figuring out who was going to take the rap for breaking it as opposed to grabbing it mid-wobble. Instead of Miles Wood selfishly taking an unnecessary slashing penalty, it was Ben Lovejoy's rushed and nervous taking of an unnecessary delay of game penalty. Instead of Mirco Mueller whacking a puck waywardly into a wide-open one timer, it was Sami Vatanen providing an even more "helpful" hand in stopping at no amount of rebounds while stuffing the puck into his own goddamn net.
In living up to their name, the Lightning are no strangers to striking quickly, but the Devils have turned themselves into the most prototypical of victims by drowning deep in their own end of the talent pool while the skies are at their darkest. The opponent is quite obviously a formidable one, but their job is being made a hell of a lot easier by a team that's doing the hockey equivalent of standing under a tree and tightly clutching a metal flag pole during a thunderstorm. Tampa Bay is deadly enough to make even the best teams in the league look dumb in their demise, but there have been periods in which it looked like New Jersey was actively campaigning to win a Darwin Award. Those periods are only made more frustrating by the amount of fight they have shown in making things look as respectable as their effort outside the mental bathroom breaks that have flushed their odds of an upset.
To be honest, I'm not too concerned with the personnel decisions, because the last two games haven't been close enough to be decided by the absence of one particular skill-set or an over-reliance on another. Those losses were team efforts no matter who was on the ice, just as the wins that that got them into the postseason in the first place were team efforts regardless of who was on the ice. John Hynes will always be the scapegoat because that's one of his top 2-3 responsibilities as the head coach of a professional hockey team, but - much like one healthy scratch isn't to blame for them coming out the gates slow - the inevitable changes to the 4th line or the 3rd pairing, in and off themselves, aren't capable of getting the Devils back up to speed in this series.
Therefore, there's really only one upcoming choice that's worth debating, and boy, oh boy, is it a doozy...
The truth is, there is no definitive answer when it comes to who to start in net for Game 3. It doesn't matter who it ends up being, if that person puts forth a better then average showing in victory then it was the right decision, and if that person puts forth a subpar showing in defeat then it was the wrong decision. That said, I think I'd stick with the guy who, since dragging the Devils into the playoffs, has done nothing other than been hung out to dry by the team in front of him. The worst goal Keith Kinkaid gave up last game was a Brayden Point-blank shot that got pinned perfectly under the crossbar, so - while he's been lit up like a Christmas tree - he certainly hasn't been most responsible for the abundance of red lights flickering around him.
I'm generally a Cory Schneider apologist in that I don't think he was nearly as bad as some would lead you to believe in the first two starts he made after returning from the IR, nor do I completely dismiss what was a hell of a first half to his season due to some circumstantial losing streak that spanned both a sickness and an injury. Still, thinking he should start means thinking that one very good period in one of the least pressurized situations the Devils have faced in the last month and a half completely cured what's been ailing the combination of his groin and his psyche.
Cory Schneider is the more talented net minder, but that was also true when he was forced to the end of the bench like he stole something during both ends of a back-to-back against bottom-feeders like the Islanders and Canadiens. Maybe he's found his game, but the entirety of the organization better know that to be the case if he's the choice, because one early goal against is much more liable to kill his confidence in cold blood than it is the person who has earned a reputation of being able to recover in willing the Devils to the playoffs.
Long story short, if the reasoning is nothing more than "maybe a team that prides itself on self-starting will be magically sparked into playing less stupid by benching the player that saved their season" then it's purely a desperation move, and that line of thinking runs directly contrary to the idea that this series is still very much undecided.
I tend to agree with Taylor Hall in believing that goaltending is the least of their concerns, but that doesn't change the fact that going away from Keith Kinkaid before he even got a well-deserved postseason start at home is much more likely to create questions than answer them. It's a tough decision that will undoubtedly be judged too harshly or praised too adamantly in retrospect, so let's hope the person making that decision is taking every possible ramification into consideration as opposed to making a change for the sake of making a change. This Devils team didn't get where they are by panicking, and - as inevitable as a Cory Schneider spot start would be during an sort of significant playoff run - they damn sure aren't going to get where they want to go by doing so either.