Six months after the 82-game grind of a regular season began, the playoff stage looms large. Following a surprise postseason miss a year ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs on the heels of the best regular season in franchise history.
A blistering start propelled the Bolts to the top of the Eastern Conference and NHL, keeping them there for the majority of the regular season. Despite a late-season lull and a surging Boston Bruins team, the Lightning took home-ice advantage for at least the first three rounds of the postseason following the Bruins’ loss to the Florida Panthers on the last day of the regular season. Tampa Bay’s reward for finishing at the top of the East? The New Jersey Devils, a team not only making their first postseason appearance since 2012, but a group that had the first overall pick in last summer’s draft.
While the Devils swept the three-game season series from the Lightning, this series has more of a David vs. Goliath feel to it. Both teams have been among the more interesting stories in the NHL this season. Following their narrow playoff miss in 2017, the Lightning entered the 2017-18 season as a Cup favorite and for the most part, they’ve delivered, led by forwards Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, and a deep supporting cast.
On the other side, New Jersey was expected to be a lottery team once again. However, they’ve morphed into one of the season’s biggest surprise stories, largely thanks to the efforts of Hart Trophy candidate Taylor Hall. Even though Hall has been playing at an MVP level, they will be tested by the Lightning’s depth and playoff experience. The Bolts own 1,145 games worth of playoff experience on their roster. By comparison, the Devils have a total of 590 postseason games under their collective belt. That total includes 11 players with no playoff experience to their name.
New Jersey: 3-0-0
Tampa Bay: 0-2-1
Although Tampa Bay lost all three regular season meetings with New Jersey, that’s a bit misleading due to the fact all three games were decided by one goal, including once in a shootout. The Lightning averaged over 41 shots on goal against the Devils this season, including a 51-shot effort in a 4-3 loss at Amalie Arena on February 17. As we’ve seen in the past, regular season results often have little bearing on what happens once playoff hockey starts up. For instance, two years ago, the Lightning swept the Pittsburgh Penguins in the regular season, only to fall in seven games to the Pens in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Tampa Bay: 23.9 PP% (3rd), 76.1 PK% (28th), 290 GF (1st), 234 GA (13th)
New Jersey: 21.4 PP% (9th), 81.8 PK% (7th), 243 GF (14th), 240 GA (17th)
Advanced Stats (5-on-5 via Corsica.Hockey)
Tampa Bay: 51.62 CF% (Total shot attempts) 7th, 57.18 GF% (1st), .929 SP% (5th), 9.35 SH% (1st), 102.28 PDO (shooting and save percentage combined) 1st
New Jersey: 48.63 CF% (21st), 48.77 GF% (17th), .917 SP% (25th), 7.91 SH% (11th), 99.64 PDO (19th)
Keys to victory for each team
- Limit turnovers – Over the course of the season, particularly in the second half, the Lightning have had issues defensively and with puck management. Too often, they’ve been careless with the puck in both their own zone and the neutral zone. We’ve seen them commit turnovers leading to odd-man rushes and quality scoring chances against. New Jersey possesses the speed and skill to counterattack and create chances going the other way, so it will be paramount for the Bolts to make the smart play with the puck.
- Improve the PK – If there’s one aspect of the Lightning’s game that could be their undoing, it’s their penalty kill. They own the second-worst shorthanded unit among the 16 playoffs teams, ahead of only Philadelphia. Since 1985-86, only two Stanley Cup champions killed fewer than 80% of penalties against during the playoffs: Pittsburgh in 1991 and Chicago in 2015. You can make a Cup run if you’re power play goes into a funk, but not usually when your PK struggles.
- Depth scoring – Everyone across the hockey world knows what Kucherov and Stamkos can do on the top line. Kucherov finished third in the league with 100 points. Stamkos wasn’t far behind with 86 points, including a career-high 59 assists. However, what sets the Bolts apart from many other teams is their depth at forward. Brayden Point finished up with 32 goals. Yanni Gourde set a Bolts rookie record with 25 tallies. The man whose record he broke, Tyler Johnson, also ended the year with 21. Even J.T. Miller, acquried at the trade deadline, scored 10 goals in 19 games with the Bolts. The Lightning led the NHL with a franchise-record 296 goals and also topped the league in 5-on-5 goals. This is a team that can roll four lines, and if the third and fourth lines get going like they’re capable of, the Devils will be in trouble.
- Can someone help Taylor Hall? – He appears likely to be one of the three finalists for the Hart Trophy. Hall finished the season with 39 goals and 93 points. That’s 41 more points than New Jersey’s second-leading scorer, 19-year-old rookie Nico Hischier. That margin between a team’s top two scorers was the highest in the NHL. While the Devils have talented forwards to go along with Hall, they don’t have the depth the Lightning do. Someone else such as Hischier, Miles Wood, Kyle Palmieri, Jesper Bratt or Patrick Maroon is going to have to step up since the Lightning figure to key in on stopping Hall.
- Goaltending – Hip and groin injuries cost regular starter Cory Schneider 16 games, and he has yet to win a start since December 27. That’s due to the fact his backup, Keith Kinkaid, swooped in and stole the job. In a 21-game stretch from mid-February to early April, Kinkaid went 16-3-1. In his last eight starts, Kinkaid is 7-0-1 with a 2.25 GAA and .931 save percentage. However, like many of his teammates, Game 1 will be the first playoff game of his career. If he keeps up his stellar play, New Jersey will have a solid chance at pulling off a big upset.
- Ignore the regular season and not get overwhelmed – The Devils can hang their hat on the fact they swept the Lightning in the regular season. However, it’s something they’ll have to quickly forget once the puck drops for Game 1. While players like former Lightning forward Brian Boyle, Travis Zajac, Ben Lovejoy, and Maroon bring a lot of playoff experience, most of this team’s key players have none. That could work to their benefit. They are heavy underdogs with no memories of any playoff failures. How they come out in Game 1 will go a long way in determining their fate. If they find a way to take the first game, their confidence could grow. However, an early setback could prove problematic. Especially against a Lightning team whose been waiting for the postseason to start for a few months.
Tampa Bay – Ryan McDonagh and Anton Stralman
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper recently changed up his top two defensive pairings. Normally, Victor Hedman and Stralman have been on the top pair with McDonagh and Dan Girardi on the second pair. However, Girardi and Stralman swapped spots. This has the look of a move that could pay dividends for the Bolts. Hedman will have the green light to produce more offense while Girardi stays back. This should free up Stralman and McDonagh to be the shutdown pair. They’re bound to see a lot of Hall and the Devils’ top forwards throughout the series.
New Jersey – Brian Boyle and Michael Grabner
Boyle should be a runaway winner for the Masterton Trophy after coming back from a bout with cancer. Although he’s firmly entrenched on New Jersey’s bottom two lines, he’s a proven playoff performer who scored some big postseason goals during his time in Tampa Bay. Grabner, a trade deadline acquisition from the New York Rangers, is one of the fastest players in the league not named Connor McDavid. He’s coming off back-to-back 27-goal seasons and is dangerous on the penalty kill, notching 15 career shorthanded goals. While some of the Devils’ other big names get more press, if these two make offensive contributions, it could pose a big problem for the Lightning.
The Lightning have been on cruise control for the better part of the last two months. Although they hit a lull through March, they still found a way to win games despite not playing their best hockey. On the other hand, the Devils remained in a battle just to make the postseason, as they didn’t lock up their spot until the final week of the season. On paper, the Lightning own a clear advantage over the Devils in terms of talent and playoff experience despite New Jersey winning all three regular season meetings.
It’s one thing to sweep a three-game regular season series over the course of six months. It’s another entirely to knock off the top seed in the Eastern Conference in a best-of-seven series. The only way I see the Devils advancing is if Kinkaid continues to be a stalwart in net and Andrei Vasilevskiy falters between the pipes for the Bolts. There’s no doubt Vasilevskiy struggled over the season’s final month. However, the Lightning also gave up the sixth-most shots in the league over their last 44 games. As long as Vasilevskiy is relatively close to the same elite level he was at early in the season, the team’s offensive depth and goaltending should be too much for the Devils to overcome.
Prediction: Lightning in six games.
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