The first round of the playoffs is here, and the Tampa Bay Lightning are up against the New Jersey Devils. If you’re a fan of the horned ones, that’s probably not good news.
Let’s be honest: few people saw New Jersey as a post-season team when the season got underway. These Devils were supposed to finish last or something. They were supposed to land a top draft pick, continue building from the ground up.
But then along came Taylor Hall and the Devils started to look formidable, maybe even like winners. And now they’re in the playoffs and drawing the toughest opponents in the Eastern Conference, barring maybe the defending Penguins.
The Lightning are first overall in goals per game with 3.537. Their power play is third overall at 23.9 percent. They have four players with at least 25 goals in the regular season, including the diabolical Nikita Kucherov and his 100 points.
The Lightning will start the insanity on Thursday at home, where they went 29-10-2 this year. They folded a little in the latter half of the season overall, however, and that may be where the Devils have some wiggle room.
Tampa has allowed the sixth-most goals against in the entire league in their last 44 games, which hasn’t done goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy any favours on his way to what might’ve been a Vezina-type campaign. In the first half of the season, the Russian posted a .937 save percentage. In the latter half? Try .907.
That’s where Hall and the Devils come in, as Vasilevskiy provides a window of opportunity. The strong Hart Trophy candidate can lead his squad to making some hay out of Tampa’s shortcomings, but he’ll need a bit more offensive support. He’s 40-something points ahead of the next best Jersey scorer, Nico Hischier, and almost 50 points up on Kyle Palmieri.
Of course, the Devils have no problem turning to rookies like Hischier, Will Butcher and Jesper Bratt and that’s going to open some doors. These guys are about as post-trap as you can get and that’ll be on display from the outset. They’ll try to outpace the speedy Lightning and that should make for an interesting series.
The wild card could be in the Garden State goal. Keith Kinkaid has been the transformative player the team has needed to push through the underdog label into contention. The Farmingville native has been sturdy in relief of the disappointing Cory Schneider, who’ll ride the pine for the post-season unless Kinkaid stumbles.
Where this series could really come alive is on special teams. The Lightning aren’t exactly playing with a full deck when it comes to the penalty kill, which means the Devils could exploit them on the man-advantage. New Jersey has the 10th best power play in the league and the seventh best PK. Tampa is first on the power play, but who’s counting?
On paper, it looks like Stamkos, Kucherov and Saint-Narcisse-de-Beaurivage’s Yanni Gourde will walk all over Hall’s chances at bringing playoff success to the Devils. But that tells only half the story, as this New Jersey squad really does have the pieces for an upset. If there’s going to be a surprise in the opening round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, it’ll happen when the Devils down the Lightning in five.