Taylor Hall (No. 9) shoots on goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy
New Jersey Devils vs. Tampa Bay Lightning: How They Win & How They Lose, 5 Things To Watch, THN Series Prediction and Playoff Depth Charts.
Though a mismatch on paper, the top-ranked team in the East cannot look past the scrappy New Jersey Devils in this first-round match-up. Tampa Bay and New Jersey are two of the fastest teams in the league and while the Lightning don’t mind trading chances, the Devils spent the early part of the year surprising teams that thought New Jersey was going to be a cellar dweller. It’s also worth noting that the Lightning have been safe in a playoff spot for practically the entire season, while the Devils had to grind until the final week. It’s not always easy to turn the motor back on after it’s been idle for awhile. Could this series mirror the Washington-Toronto battle of last year, which was much closer than expected? It’s worth noting that New Jersey won all three meetings against Tampa Bay this season.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
How They Win: By overwhelming their opponents with an embarrassment of riches offensively. The Lightning are the league’s highest-scoring team and have one of the best power plays. They have four lines that can score, including perhaps the league’s most underrated offensive weapon in Brayden Point, and a mobile defense corps that can quickly move the puck up to the forwards. Tampa Bay scored five or more goals in 30 percent of its games. The Lightning are a little like the 1980s Edmonton Oilers – no matter how many goals they give up in a game, they find a way to score one more than their opponents. Andrei Vasilevskiy is a leading contender for the Vezina Trophy and has proved to be the workhorse goalie the team was hoping for when it traded Ben Bishop. Tampa Bay has been relatively injury-free this season.
How They Lose: Although they gained a huge reinforcement in Ryan McDonagh, the Lightning can sometimes be a mess in their own zone, and they’re one of the league’s worst teams in almost every aspect on the defensive side of the puck. They give up a lot of shots, their penalty killing is atrocious and, aside from Steven Stamkos, they’re one of the league’s worst faceoff teams. Perhaps it was because the Bolts had built up such a comfortable lead in the standings, but there was a period in the season when they got a little complacent. Coach Jon Cooper’s squad relies far too heavily on goaltending and an explosive offense. The problem with that is goalies can wear down, and in the playoffs, there’s a greater emphasis on defense.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
How They Win: The Devils are fast. That’s been the blueprint for a lot of successful teams lately, and New Jersey’s turnaround can be credited to coach John Hynes and his deployment of quick youngsters as well as vets such as Taylor Hall, who has some of the NHL’s best wheels. Particularly in the first half, the Devils overwhelmed teams with their speed and tired opponents out: New Jersey was one of the NHL’s stingiest clubs in the third period. The penalty kill has also been a strength, with unsung heroes Andy Greene and Ben Lovejoy leading the way. Finally, the Devils have a legitimate no-one-believed-in-us chip on their shoulder, as many forecasters thought they would be basement dwellers again. That camaraderie, not to mention playoff-tested veterans such as Brian Boyle and Sami Vatanen, has changed the complexion of this team very quickly.
How They Lose: With the exception of Hall, who ran up a huge point streak in the second half, a lot of the feel-good Devils cooled off after lava-hot starts. Rookies Jesper Bratt and Will Butcher hit offensive walls in the new year, as did the surprising Brian Gibbons before he broke his thumb in late January. Of most concern heading into the post-season is the health of star goalie Cory Schneider, who missed significant time with a groin injury before returning for the stretch run. Schneider has been OK this year, but just OK, and his stats have fallen from a couple seasons ago when he was regularly posting save percentages of .920 and better. If their No. 1 netminder isn’t at his best – or if backup Keith Kinkaid falters in the heat of the playoffs – the Devils won’t get far in a division laced with snipers.
Five Things To Watch
1. Limping goalies. Vasilevskiy sagged down the stretch, allowing five goals or more in four of his final 12 starts. His 65 appearances were by far his most ever in the NHL. Meanwhile, New Jersey got into the playoffs thanks to Kinkaid. Schneider played just two of the Devils’ final 10 games and gave up at least four goals in each appearance.
2. Seen Stamkos? In what has become an unfortunate trend, the Lightning's star center got hurt again. This time, it’s a lower-body injury that caused him to miss the final three games of the season. And while ‘Stammer’ had hopes that he’ll be ready for Game 1, it’s an ominous situation.
3. Staying out of the box. The Lightning penalty kill was a soft spot for an otherwise great team and Tampa was top-10 in times shorthanded during the regular season. New Jersey has a top-10 power play, so Lightning newcomer McDonagh must be a difference-maker. Also, the Bolts should just not take penalties.
4. For the defense. Speaking of McDonagh, he and Norris Trophy candidate Victor Hedman give Tampa Bay a huge advantage in this series. Tampa Bay can have at least one of those blueliners on the ice for practically the entire game, which means Devils stars Hall and 19-year-old rookie Nico Hischier won’t get much room out there.
5. Death by a thousand cuts. On the subject of depth, Tampa Bay has four forwards with at least 25 goals this season, whereas New Jersey has one (Hall). The bottom-six forwards are much more dangerous for the Lightning and if it comes down to cancelling each other out on offense, Tampa Bay will romp.
THN Series Prediction: Lightning in 6.
LINE COMBOS, DEFENSE PAIRINGS & GOALIES