Hall’s Devils aim to upset Kucherov’s Lightning
TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning earned a division title by a single point on the final day of the regular season, but even the top seed in the Eastern Conference only did them so much of a favor.
The Lightning open the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs on Thursday against a New Jersey Devils team that swept them in three regular-season meetings, presenting a real challenge as Tampa Bay hopes to start a deep postseason run.
New Jersey is in the playoffs for the first time since losing in the 2012 finals, so many of the Devils players are new to the energy and urgency of playoff hockey. The Lightning don’t want to make that out to be too tremendous an advantage.
“Experience is what you make of it,” said Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper, whose team missed the playoffs last year but made the finals and conference finals in 2015 and 2016. “Naturally, it’s good to have gone through some of these situations before, but I look at our team in 2015, we didn’t really have much experience and we were able to get through.”
The Devils have had a playoff mindset for weeks, battling for the last wild card in the East, and coach John Hynes said that intensity makes for a natural carry-over to the actual playoffs ahead.
“The fact that we were able to play that type of hockey, really had to push and play our way in has strengthened our belief,” Hynes said. “You can’t match the intensity of the playoffs in the regular season, just because it’s a little more physical and a little more tightly contested and everybody’s all in on every game.”
All three regular-season meetings were one-goal games, the first going to New Jersey in a shootout. The Lightning have a healthy respect for Devils left winger Taylor Hall, who leads the team with 39 goals and 54 assists.
Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov matched Hall’s 39 goals, but he has a much stronger scoring complement around him. New Jersey has only one player with 25 or more goals, while Kucherov has Brayden Point (32), Steven Stamkos (27) and rookie Yanni Gourde (25), making them harder to defend with threats on multiple lines.
The Lightning have the league’s top scoring offense, but also have a vulnerability on the penalty kill, where they ranked 27th in the league, stopping only 76 percent of opponents’ power plays. New Jersey’s power play ranked 10th in the NHL, and presents another threat, having scored an NHL-best 12 short-handed goals.
Both goalies are relatively young and inexperienced in the playoffs — Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, still just 23, has a 4-5 record in 12 postseason appearances, while New Jersey’s Keith Kinkaid, 28, will be making his playoff debut.
The series begins in Tampa — where the Lightning tied for third-most home wins with 29 this season — with games on Thursday and Saturday before shifting to New Jersey for the next two games.