The truth is, despite believing that New Jersey had a decent chance of winning this series before it started, I thought it would have taken an upset of epic proportions for them to go into Tampa Bay and steal home ice advantage in Game 1. After a head-scratching season series, they were owed one by a team that finally had the motivation to match their level of desperation. If you've been building their case by telling yourself that the Devils have been playoff hockey against top-end competition for the last month then I welcome you to the club, but admitting to yourself that - for the most part -their opposition wasn't is a response that's required of this membership. Not that anyone thought that beating the first overall seed in the Eastern Conference after scratching and clawing to retain their playoff spot was going to be easy, but everything should be a little bit harder come mid-April. Defensively, the Devils didn't act according to the latter half of that cliche, and that's largely why the are looking at a one game hole headed into Saturday.
While I'd love to take up residence in a perfect world where the Devils are capable of breaking the spirit of even the most ferocious of forechecks, the fact of the matter is that the Lightning are too goddamn good not to turn them over every once and awhile. Limiting those giveaways and breakdowns while making sure they don't result in one of Tampa's handful of 20-goal scorers standing unencumbered in front of their net is a much more realistic expectation that a young team failed miserably in meeting last night. It wasn't entirely unpredictable that they were overwhelmed and outclassed in the first period of a series against a team that's been there before, but fixing the issues in their own end are paramount if they want to instill even a little bit of doubt in said team. Long story short, now more than ever, you absolutely cannot beat yourself if you're looking to also beat a team that is, top to bottom, better than you.
And that's where Mirco Mueller comes in, or - more accurately - should come out. He wasn't the only player whose mistakes cost the Devils (See: Maroon's tape-to-tape offensive zone turnover) but he's one of the only players whose mistakes looked to have effected his play over the course of the game. Theoretically, he's only playing because he's the "safer" option, but after his overhanding of the puck turned into the most untimely of two goal deficits he was about as cautious as juggling a live grenade while trying to weave your way through traffic to get to the nearest shitter. The haphazard clear turned perfect one-timer pass wasn't as egregious a decision as watching the result in slow-motion would lead you to believe, but it was fitting of player that played like...well...someone who struggled to take his game to the next level after spending merely eight games back in the lineup getting used to the previous level. I was already skeptical of the Devils scratching their second or third most skilled defensemen against a team with which they are dealing from an obvious talent disparity, but if that was an example of the "smarts" they are prioritizing then get Damon Severson's dumb ass in the lineup ASAP. Sink or swim, his offensive prowess and right-handed shot probably give the blue line their best chance of staying afloat in stormy waters.
All in all, the score didn't reflect how well the Devils played for some stretches. After Miles Wood's moronic and unnecessary penalty rightfully got him benched and ultimately pushed Tampa's lead to three, the final 38 minutes and change were a pretty good portrayal of how close this series can be if the Devils avoid defensive disasters. Zajac and friends put quite the kibosh on the Stamkos-Kucherov line, the powerplay looked fantastic (and for potentially the first time all year I say that of both units), Taylor Hall proved that he probably should have started doing this whole postseason ages ago, and the resilient team we've all come to know and love actually made a game of it. If they do that from the outset then, win or lose, you're likely looking at a much more competitive game on Saturday. The Devils got their kick in the ass and it didn't leave them flat on their face. I think that bodes well for a team that's very much learning what it takes to win this time of the year on the fly.