Last spring, the New Jersey Devils learned first-hand how much ground they need to make up on the Tampa Bay Lightning, decisively losing a first-round playoff series four games to one.
As the teams get set to meet Monday night at the Prudential Center, the gap between the Lightning and Devils has widened considerably.
While the Lightning (19-7-1) are once again on top of the Eastern Conference, the Devils (9-11-5) are last in the East after finishing in eighth place a year ago.
"That playoff series was eye-opening for our players, it showed just how far we've got to go to be considered one of the better teams in the league," said Devils head coach John Hynes. "But we told the players this is a new season, there's not necessarily a carry-over from the previous season, and we have to script a new story."
So far, that story is largely disappointing for the Devils, who have lost five straight following a 4-3 overtime defeat on home ice to the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday. The Devils surrendered 23 goals in the past five games, three of which were decided in overtime. New Jersey is 0-5 in overtime this season as opposed to 10-9 in 2017-18.
Among their issues this season, the Devils surrender 3.44 goals per game, ranking them near the bottom of the league. Their minus-12 goal differential is tied for worst in the Eastern Conference. They have only two power-play goals in the last 12 games. And the Devils are winless in eight games (0-7-1) when trailing after the first period.
"We're not playing horrible, but there's always a little piece missing that's not letting us get wins," said Devils left-wing Taylor Hall.
Despite Saturday's loss, the Devils have been good on home ice this year with a 7-1-4 record. In addition, Hall has 27 points in 25 games; winger Jesper Bratt has nine points in 12 games since returning from injury; and center Marcus Johansson is getting his game in gear with goals in consecutive games and three goals and two assists in the last five games.
"I like the way our guys played [Saturday] night," said Hynes. "I think you have to compliment the guys and their willingness to battle. We would have liked to have the two points, but the way we battled is something to build on."
The Lightning provide a stiff test to the struggling Devils on Monday. Not only do the Lightning have more points (39) than any other club in the NHL, they've also won five of six and seven of nine. Plus, the Lightning already beat New Jersey twice this season, outscoring the Devils 13-5.
Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov has two goals and three assists this season against the Devils, and he brings a nine-game point-scoring streak into Monday's contest. Kucherov, who leads the Lightning in scoring with 38 points, has 20 of those points during the last nine games.
Kucherov had a goal and two assists in the Lightning's 5-4 overtime victory over the Florida Panthers on Saturday, a game in which Tampa Bay rallied from a 4-1 deficit. The red-hot Brayden Point netted the overtime-winning goal, his team-leading 19th of the season. He now has five goals in his last five games, and 10 in the last nine games.
"We didn't panic, we stayed the course," Point told reporters following the game. "We kept playing our game. We worked hard, and when we got our chances, we converted on them."
With No. 1 goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy on injured reserve with a fractured left foot, the Lightning have not skipped a beat. Since Vasilevskiy went down, Louis Domingue started all 10 games in goal, winning seven. Despite allowing fewer than three goals only three times in that span, Domingue has kept the high-flying Lightning on course.
"When the game is on the line and you need the timely save, those are the saves you need in order to win, and he's giving us that," Lightning coach Jon Cooper told the team's web site. "He's finding ways to win games for us and you need that in your goalie."
After Monday's contest, the Devils travel out west for a three-game road trip to California, while the Lightning finish off a three-game road swing Tuesday in Detroit against the Red Wings.