This ended with gloves and sticks scattered all over the ice, players being escorted to the locker rooms before the final whistle, and a sold-out building going absolutely berserk.
In other words, for the first time in six years, playoff hockey returned to Newark.
And in turn, the Devils rewarded their fans by getting back into the series with the top-seeded Lightning.
With a gritty and physical explosion, with another Hart Trophy-worthy performance from Taylor Hall, and with an emotional return to nets from Cory Schneider, the Devils took a 5-2 victory over the Lightning in Game 3 of their first-round series on Monday night in Newark. It cut the deficit in the best-of-seven contest to 2-1, and suddenly, Game 4 at Prudential Center on Wednesday night is going to be an event.
“I think the message was sent pretty clear,” said forward Blake Coleman, whose third period included taking a hit to the head from Mikhail Sergachev, blocking a shot with his hand that sent him briefly to the locker room — and then scoring a shorthanded empty-net goal in the final minute that drew a primal scream out of him only matched by the surrounding din of the 16,514 in attendance.
“We showed it’s going to be a series, going to be a dogfight,” Coleman said. “If there’s any thought in their head that they’re going to be able to sleepwalk through it, then I think we sent a pretty good message.”
The pushback from the Devils first came in the way of one player’s unmatched determination, with Hall having a goal and two primary assists, by far the best player on the ice all night.
When the Devils were down 1-0 early in the second, Hall seemingly came out of nowhere to fire a loose puck behind Andrei Vasilevskiy and tie it. When Steven Stamkos made it 2-1 just 38 seconds into the third on Tampa’s fifth power-play goal in his team’s first seven attempts this series — yes, the Devils’ penalty kill has been that bad — Hall was there to set up rookie defenseman Will Butcher for a five-on-three goal to tie it again.
And when the game was on the line in the third, Hall flew up ice, drew two defenders, drew the attention of another — and then found a wide-open Stefan Noesen for what would make it 3-2 and stand up as the game winner with 7:05 remaining in regulation.
“Just trying to do my job,” said Hall, who heard chants of “MVP! MVP!” all evening. “It’s been a lot of fun to play on this team for the last little while.”
It helped too that Schneider was the rock in nets, the veteran having lost his starting job to Keith Kinkaid when he couldn’t regain his form after returning on March 1 from close to a six-week absence due to a groin injury. But coach John Hynes liked what he saw when Schneider came in for mop-up duty in Game 2 in Tampa, and he went back to his veteran.
Schneider came through with 34 saves, including a huge sequence midway through the third when he robbed former Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh on a breakaway and then followed it with a sprawled-out save on Tyler Johnson seconds later, seemingly tweaking his left knee in the process. After being cleared by the training staff, Schneider stayed in, and there were more chants of “Cory! Cory!” to be heard from the revitalized fans.
“We got the emotional involvement now,” Schneider said. “We’re on each other’s nerves a little bit. We’re on home ice. So it’s going to be a series and we have to make sure it stays that way.”
If anything is showing that this will be a series now, it happened with 23 seconds remaining in regulation, as Brian Boyle pointed and yelled at Sergachev as the two were escorted off, while all 10 skaters on the ice received game misconducts as the result of a massive scrum in the corner.
“It’s hard to describe until you experience it, the playoff atmosphere,” said Boyle, who is second only to Carl Hagelin for the most postseason games played over the past five years. “Now we have to turn the page because we have another really big one in Game 4.”
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