NEWARK, N.J. -- The New Jersey Devils need a spark in their first-round playoff series with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and hope that playing in front of their home crowd Monday night, as well as the return of two key veterans to the lineup, will provide the required boost to climb back into this best-of-seven after dropping the first two games in the Sunshine State.
And there's one other big thing the Devils need, according to coach John Hynes.
"Even though we have some lineup changes, we have to play better, the guys that remain in the lineup -- they have to play better," Hynes said following the morning skate at the Prudential Center. "It's on every individual player...we need guys to step up and play a better, more thorough game as a group."
Considering the fact that the Devils allowed ten goals (one into the empty net) and did not hold a lead for a single second over the first two games, Hynes' assessment was spot on. During a conference call Sunday, Hynes used the term "passengers", pointing out that not all the players were engaged at the level they needed to be during Thursday's 5-2 loss nor Saturday's 5-3 defeat.
— #GoBolts (@TBLightning) April 15, 2018
As such, Michael Grabner and Mirco Mueller will watch from the press box Monday night. And Keith Kinkaid, who started the first two games of the series in goal, will be on the bench after allowing five goals on 15 shots and getting pulled in the second period of Game 2.
Veteran winger Drew Stafford slots back in for Game 3; but, perhaps, more importantly the spark could be provided by the returns of Marcus Johansson and Cory Schneider.
Here’s what it’s looking like ahead of Game 3 for #NJDevils.
I’m not 100% sure of that last defensive pairing, Mueller took a couple rotations there too but skated mostly with Santini as the extras. #NowWeRise pic.twitter.com/458zo1XfUv
— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) April 16, 2018
Johansson missed the last 37 games due to a concussion and Schneider lost his starting job after suffering an injured groin/hip in January and then struggling upon his return more than a month later.
"It's a big relief and I'm excited," said Johansson. "It's been frustrating sitting on the sidelines watching. Been a long time now, so I'm just happy to go."
— x - New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) April 16, 2018
Across the locker room from Johansson, Schneider said through a steely stare, "It's a big game for us, a really important game in this series, so to get a chance to start it means a lot to me."
Johansson adds 69 career games of playoff experience to the mix, as well as the versatility to play a top-six or bottom-six role either on the wing or at center.
"He's one of those guys that can really make plays in tight and he's real slippery around the net, too, as far as finishing," Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said of Johansson. "He's very unselfish, too. He just makes his lines click when the puck is on his stick because he tends to make the right play."
Those are several of the reasons why the Devils acquired Johansson from the Washington Capitals last summer. However, the Devils have yet to fully benefit from all Johansson brings as three separate injury stints -- including a pair of concussions -- marred his first season in New Jersey, limiting him to just 29 games.
"Not having any symptoms and not feeling well, it's not something anyone wants, so I'm just happy to be feeling good," said Johansson, who recorded 14 points this season after scoring a career-high 24 goals and 58 points a year ago. "And tonight is a big game. They won two in a row at home and now we've got to go out and do the same thing. We can't panic. We just have to go out, play our game and get back into the way we know we can play, because then we are really tough to play against."
Marcus Johansson was back on the ice for the #NJDevils at practice Monday, recovering from a concussion sustained on a Brad Marchand hit. He didn't hold back when asked to comment on the #NHLBruins forward.https://t.co/aQWbwD3QxE pic.twitter.com/bvVmlgAQwL
— Sporting News Canada (@sportingnewsca) March 26, 2018
The 32-year-old Schneider started the season as the unquestioned No. 1 goalie with the Devils. Yet, incredibly, he has not won a game since Dec. 27. Since then he is 0-10-2, allowing three goals or more in every appearance. He played in five games after returning from injured reserve on March 1, allowing 18 goals in those defeats.
Schneider, who has 11 career games of playoff experience -- the first ten with the Vancouver Canucks -- did stop all ten shots he faced in relief of Kinkaid on Saturday.
"That was a great opportunity for me to go in and make some saves and show that I'm feeling good about myself," explained Schneider. "It doesn't mean much if you don't come out (Monday) and play well, so, hopefully, I can parlay that into a good start tonight."
While Hynes and the Devils players express trust in both goaltenders, there's no question that Schneider provides a certain level of comfort when he's in between the pipes. And the way he handled a lesser role down the stretch when Kinkaid went 7-0-1 while starting eight straight games does not go unnoticed in the dressing room.
"Let me say this about Cory, he's a great teammate," defenseman John Moore told Sporting News.
Added veteran center Travis Zajac, "He's obviously worked his butt off the last month, and I think it's a great opportunity for him. He's battled through it, and he's still our guy."