After a season plagued by injuries, the Tampa Bay Lightning stormed out of the gate in October. While they didn’t necessarily meet everyone’s expectations of rolling through the league all the way through March, the Lightning have been a force to be reckoned with all season. Recently, they’ve slowed down, but playoff experience has showed that the Lightning kick it up a notch in the postseason.
The New Jersey Devils, on the other hand, are the quintessential upstart, looking to spoil postseasons any way they can. Only one year removed from picking Nico Hischier first overall in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft and riding on the shoulders of Taylor Hall, the Devils are in the playoffs for the first time since 2012, and they’re out for blood.
In the regular season, the Devils swept the season series, winning the first game 5-4 in the shootout, the next 4-3 and the last 2-1. But everything changes in the playoffs.
So what’s going to happen? Let’s look at how the series breaks down:
Tampa Bay: It’s been the Steven Stamkos – Nikita Kucherov show all season, and Kucherov is especially deadly during the playoffs. Over 43 playoff games in 2015 and 2017, he scored 43 points, including three game-winning goals. Rookies Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde aren’t to be trifled with either, and four-time Stanley Cup Champion Chris Kunitz has been known to come in clutch when the stakes are high.
New Jersey: Nothing but respect for my Hart candidate, Taylor Strba Hall, ready to play in the playoffs for the first time. In the regular season, Hall led his team in scoring with 92 points, a league-leading 41-points ahead of the next highest Devils scorer, rookie Nico Hischier. The Hischier-Hall combination has been devastating for opposing teams. When they’re on the ice with Kyle Palmieri, the Devils score two goals for every goal scored against. Deeper in the network, there isn’t too much to be had in the scoring department, but the Devils are fairly strong at center with Pavel Zacha, Travis Zajac and Brian Boyle.
Advantage: Tampa. Their forward depth brings much more to the table than that of New Jersey, which largely relies on Hall and Hischer to generate offense.
Tampa Bay: The trade-deadline acquisition of Ryan McDonagh from the New York Rangers made headlines, and with McDonagh and Victor Hedman on the left side the Lightning are extraordinarily strong there. However, the right isn’t much to speak of.
New Jersey: The acquisition of Sami Vatanen from the Anaheim Ducks for Adam Henrique may have been one of the best unsung moves made by any team this season. Paired with captain Andy Greene, Vatanen has been matched up against Tampa’s top line all season and has certainly held his own. Behind them, Will Butcher has certainly lived up to all the free agent hype at the beginning of the season, but the rest of the D corps is decent at best.
Advantage: Tampa. McDonagh and Hedman are both All-Star defensemen, and New Jersey’s defense is certainly skilled, but young and inexperienced.
Tampa Bay: Andrei Vasilevskiy has been stellar in net for the Lightning since he first made his debut behind Ben Bishop in 2016. This season, he’s posted a .920 save percentage over 64 games and tied for first in the league with 44 wins. Lately, however, he’s been cold, letting in an average of 3.37 goals a game since the end of January. If he should get injured, Louis Domingue isn’t exactly the best backup on the market, but there’s also always Peter Budaj.
New Jersey: Recently, Keith Kinkaid has taken over the role of starter from Cory Schneider, and he’s been absolutely brutal since he took over at the end of January. Since then, he’s had a .922 save percentage and a 2.53 goals against average. Furthermore, Schneider is more than a viable backup, and if anything does happen to Kinkaid he’ll be able to step right in.
Advantage: New Jersey by a slim margin, especially if Vasilevskiy gets injured. Kinkaid is red hot right now, while Vasilevskiy? Not so much. Furthermore, the Devils are operating on a tandem system, which certainly did the Pittsburgh Penguins good last season, even if Schneider and Kinkaid aren’t exactly Marc-André Fleury and Matt Murray.
Tampa Bay: With a 23.9 percent power play (third in the league during the regular season), Tampa is dangerous on the man advantage, especially when shooting from the faceoff dot. However, the penalty kill is another beast entirely, and at fourth from last in the league, Tampa needs to work on that 76.1 percent kill.
New Jersey: Both the power play and penalty kill ran fairly middle-of-the-pack in the regular season. Hall and Hischier are currently split up between the units, but if coach John Hynes decides to put them together on the top power play unit, that could be truly dangerous.
Advantage: New Jersey. Tampa’s power play is deadly, but its subpar penalty kill paired with Taylor Hall’s top-5 power play production is set for some fireworks.
Tampa Bay: Postseason experience. The Devils are in it for the first time, while (barring last season) Tampa’s been pushing deep into the race for the Cup year after year. While there certainly are rookies on the team playing in their first playoff series, many players know what they’re up against.
New Jersey: Playoff Taylor Hall. No one knows what he looks like when the stakes get immeasurably higher, and if he adjusts his game accordingly, he could rain hell (no pun intended) upon the Lightning.
Tampa Bay in 7. I may have given the advantage to the Lightning in almost every category, but New Jersey is definitely going to give Tampa fits. If Tampa simply stays consistent then they’ll be able to eke out the win. However, New Jersey definitely has the right building blocks to vie for a deep run in the next few seasons.