After missing the postseason last year, both the New Jersey Devils and Tampa Bay Lightning have returned to the playoffs. This is Tampa Bay’s fourth postseason appearance in the last five years, which included a 2015 Stanley Cup Final appearance. New Jersey, on the other hand, is back in the playoffs for the first time since their own visit to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012. While the Lightning have been dominant for most of the 2017-2018 campaign, finishing atop the Eastern Conference, this might not seem like an ideal matchup for Tampa Bay, who lost all three regular season matchups (0-2-1) against New Jersey.
Despite going winless against the Devils, Tampa Bay was only outscored 10-8. In addition, the Devils faced Andrei Vasilevskiy twice and backup Peter Budaj once, whereas the Lightning played against three different Devils goaltenders, with Kinkaid playing in the final matchup between both teams— a 2-1 Devils victory.
First overall picks Steven Stamkos and Nico Hischier tallied two goals and four points each in their team’s season series, while Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev notched four assists. Tampa Bay kept Devils leading scorer Taylor Hall out of the goal column, but he averaged a point per game against them (three assists). Nikita Kucherov had one goal and two points against New Jersey.
Why the Devils can win
In the four seasons since the division realignments, 8/12 teams (four others went .500 against each other) with the better regular season record against their first round opponent in the Eastern Conference won the series. New Jersey was the only Eastern Conference team to win every game against Tampa (and at different points in the season- October, February, March).
The Lightning struggled immensely on their penalty kill, which finished 28th in the league (76.1 percent). The Devils, whose power play was ranked 10th in the league (21.4 percent) and converted on seven of its last 20 chances, could take advantage of Tampa Bay being shorthanded, having scored twice on eight power plays against them this season.
The Lightning have sort of stumbled into the playoffs, as evidenced by their 6-6-1 record in their final 13 contests. In addition to Steven Stamkos missing Tampa’s last three games (whose health going into the playoffs is uncertain) and not scoring a goal since March 3, the Lightning captain is entering the playoffs in a 12-game goal drought; but isn’t the only Lightning forward struggling with scoring. Yanni Gourde (25 goals), has three goals in his last 25 games, Brayden Point (34 goals) only has five in his last 15, and Tyler Johnson (21 goals) scored just three times in his last 19 contests.
Although Tampa’s secondary scoring kicked in, and Nikita Kucherov finished strong (but slowed down) with six goals and 18 points in his last 17 contests, it’s not an ideal time for your top scorers to go cold— especially against a team you failed to win against that’s gone 9-3-1 in their last 13 contests of the season.
Why the Lightning can win
Beating the Lightning three times is impressive, but there’s no denying Tampa Bay is hands down, the better team. They finished higher than New Jersey in virtually every statistical category (leading the league in scoring for example), and their best players in each position are eons better compared to New Jersey. Tampa Bay scored more and surrendered fewer goals, so in response to the Devil’s historical “edge” from winning the season series, Tampa has a few worth mentioning. Since 2014 in the Eastern Conference Quarter-Finals, 14 out of 16 teams with home ice advantage, 10 out of 16 teams with more goals scored, and 13 out of 16 teams with fewer goals against won the series.
While the Devils won all three matchups by one goal (with one game going to a shootout), that will be a painstakingly difficult task to do in four of the next seven games. Let’s also keep in mind that outside of their top line (Hall-Hischier-Palmieri), New Jersey lacks a trio that can even remotely match up with any of Tampa’s top three units in terms of offensive talent.
For undisputed starter Keith Kinkaid, along with nine Devils skaters who played at least 69 games this season (Hall, Butcher, Hischier, Zacha, Coleman, Bratt, Wood, Noesen, Severson) this will be their first playoffs. Kinkaid’s play over the last 20 games (16-3-1) has been impressive, however he can’t play any lower than this level to give the Devils a chance at winning.
Tampa Bay outshot New Jersey by an average of 41-31, and had 1.5 times more power plays this season. If these conditions spill into this series, every game could turn into a shooting gallery, which is something that Kinkaid can only do so much against. In addition to finding themselves on the power play more often against the Devils this season, Tampa also a higher conversion rate on the man-advantage, scoring four times on 12 power plays. One of the growing pains that manifests in a young team like New Jersey is consistent discipline, which coped with New Jersey’s glaring playoff inexperience, could be something the Lightning potentially exploit to prevail in this series.