There was something about this Devils playoff game on Monday night that made it so much special. It felt different from a decade ago when the Devils would be in the playoffs annually.
Maybe it was because Devils fans are getting a taste of the playoffs for the first time in six years. Maybe for a new generation of Devils fans, this is all new. Maybe for the old generation of Devils fans, this is something they took it for granted when their team was a Stanley Cup contender for two decades. Maybe it was the 11-year-old Prudential Center that featured more acoustics.
Whatever it is, Game 3 of the first round best-of-seven series felt like a Stanley Cup Final game at the Prudential Center. It was not your normal run-of-the-mill first round playoff game that fans took for granted. The sellout crowd was ready to go from the minute they entered Mulberry Street on their way to the arena, and they did not stop the entire game.
It was the type of atmosphere that never took place at the then-Continental Airlines Arena, which was where the Devils played from 1982 to 2006. Monday night was the type of night the Devils and Newark city officials envisioned when the Prudential Center was built.
The Devils fans were rewarded for their faith and support by their team scoring four goals in the third period that would give them a 5-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning. It gave the Devils a new life for one night, and it gave Devils fans reason to be loud and proud for one night. Being down 2-1 in the series was not going to devoid the team and their fanbase of joy, and it shouldn’t.
The Devils feeded off from the energy of their crowd early when they were peppering shots at Lightning goaltender AndreI Vasilevskiy often and forcing the action in the Lightning zone. Too bad for them, they had no goals to show for it when the first period was over.
On the flip side, Devils goaltender Cory Schneider, who started Game 3 to give the Devils a spark in a move that reeked desperation after falling behind 2-0 with Keith Kinkaid in goal, played well in the first period. The Devils needed Schneider to set the tone, and he did.
When Alex Killorn scored a power-play goal on a Nikita Kucherov pass to give the Lightning a 1-0 lead 42 seconds into the second period, the crowd was quiet. There was some frustration from Devils fans about the Lightning doing everything right in this series. There was nothing Schneider could do there when Killorn flicked a wrister past him.
The Devils needed someone to wake up the crowd, and by that, we don’t mean the in-arena scoreboard telling fans to make some noise. They needed a player who would rise to the occasion. They needed a player that would provide an answer to Killorn’s goal.
Enter Taylor Hall. He ripped a shot past Vasilevskiy to tie the game at 1 in the second period after the Lightning misplayed the puck between the circles after the Lightning goaltender made the save on Kyle Palmieri’s shot. It was the tonic the Devils and the crowd needed to get some life.
For Hall to come through was fitting. He has flourished in the postseason by scoring two goals and garnering three assists. It’s what stars should do by scoring when it matters in the postseason. It seems like the Devils have a star that is made for the postseason, which is imperative for a team to win playoff games and series. It was something the Rangers lacked when they were Cup contenders in the last few years.
When the third period started, the Devils fans amped up their cheering. They knew they could smell blood. They knew the Lightning looked vulnerable. They wanted to be the difference maker.
But with 38 seconds into the third period, Steve Stamkos (his first goal of the series) scored a power-play goal to give the Lightning a 2-1 lead. The fans did not sit down in their seats when all of this was going on. It was so sudden that the place became a morgue temporarily.
The action began when the Lightning took two foolish penalties (Penalty No. 2 was having too many men on ice) that gave the Devils a 5-on-3 power play, and the Devils made them pay when Will Butcher fire the puck past Vasilevskiy to even the game at 2. It was the momentum changer. The crowd sensed that, and they got louder for every Devils shift.
When Stefan Noesen one-timed past Vasilevskiy on a cross-ice pass by Hall to give the Devils a 3-2 lead, the sellout crowd exploded by screaming and waving their hankies. The fans were standing up often and frequently with five minutes to go.
From there, the Lightning knew they had no shot. Not with the Devils fans being on the top of the action. Blake Coleman and Ben Lovejoy put the Lightning out of their misery by scoring empty net goals late.
It was bedlam from there. Fans were hugging each other. So many Let’s Go Devils chants. The hankies were waving at high pace.
After the game, the crowd kept going to the point it drained out MSG Network’s Deb Placey’s interview with Hall. They sernarded Hall with the chants of MVP! MVP! MVP!
The fans continued all the way to Newark Penn Station. They even honked “Let’s Go Devils” in their cars while driving in the streets of Newark.
For one night, the atmosphere felt like the Devils won the Stanley Cup.
That’s what happens when an once-proud team has their first playoff victory in six years.