TAMPA, Fla. — The top-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning are well aware that the speedy New Jersey Devils are a dangerous opponent that can’t be taken lightly in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The underdog Devils won all three regular-season meetings between the teams.
That doesn’t guarantee success when the teams begin their best-of-7 Eastern Conference series Thursday night, but it clearly has the attention of the talented and more experienced Lightning.
“When you get to this time of year, teams are so tight and they’re so close,” coach Jon Cooper said. “There are no easy outs.”
Tampa Bay is back in the playoffs after a one-year hiatus, aiming for a deep run for the third time in four seasons.
After reaching the 2015 Stanley Cup Finals and coming within one victory of a return trip two years ago, the Atlantic Division champions have been driven by the disappointment of narrowly missing out a postseason berth in 2017.
“We’ve talked about how disappointing last year was and kind of how that fueled us, especially at the beginning of the year. We kind of played with a chip on our shoulder a little bit,” captain Steven Stamkos said.
“We have a very special group this year. We have an opportunity if we play as we know we can,” Stamkos added. “But at the same time, it’s going to be a very difficult series.”
New Jersey, led by left wing Taylor Hall and red-hot goalie Keith Kincaid, won 10 of 14 games down the stretch to earn a playoff berth.
Hall had 39 goals and 54 assists to pace the Devils with 93 points, and Kincaid enters the postseason on a stretch in which he’s won seven of eight games.
In addition to having the league’s top-scoring offense led by Nikita Kucherov (39 goals, 61 assists, 100 points) and Stamkos (27, 59, 86), the Lightning defense is anchored by Norris Trophy contender Victor Hedman and all-star goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who tied for the NHL lead in wins with 44.
“They’re highly skilled, (with) some good stay-at-home defensemen,” Kinkaid said. “I think we’ve just got to play our game. It’s no different than the regular season. Get the puck down low, stick to our game plan, back check, then from great defense comes great offense.”
Some things to know about the Devils and Lightning:
M-V-P: There is no one more important to the Devils than Hall. He had a career-season in getting to the playoffs for the first time since being the No. 1 overall draft pick by Edmonton in 2010. He had 39 goals, 54 assists and 93 points, all career highs. His season was highlighted when he had points in 26 straights appearances. The league does not consider it a streak because he missed three games with an injury. His confidence is sky high. In the final week of the season, he got a penalty shot against Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers. He skated in quickly and snapped a shot into the top corner of the net.
READY FOR THE CHALLENGE: Vasilevskiy, who had a 2.62 goals-against average and .920 save percentage, enters the playoffs as a No. 1 goalie for the first time. He was instrumental in the Lightning getting off to a strong start and sporting the best record in the East for most of the season. Fatigue was a factor after the All-Star break. And while Tampa Bay’s potent offense carried the team plenty of nights, Cooper is confident the 23-year-old will be on his game for the postseason.
“There are the big statistics of save percentage and goals against, and Vasilevskiy was great in those. But the one thing for me, is did he win the game? Because to me if you win the game 7-6 or 2-1, you still won the game,” Cooper said. “Naturally is it a lot more satisfying to only give up one goal … but in the end it’s all about winning. That kid reeled off 44 of them, and that’s a pretty darn high number.”
SHUTDOWN LINE: Whenever the line of Stamkos, Kucherov and J.T. Miller is on the ice, expect the Devils to counter with a line that features Travis Zajac at center with Blake Coleman on the left side and Stefan Noesen on the right. In the final month of the season, John Hynes used the trio whenever he could against an opponent’s top line. It might be hard to get the matchup on the road in the best-of-7 series, but it’s almost certain that will be the matchup at home, Not only has the line shut down opponents, it contributed 11 goals, including three game winners, in a late 10-2-1 run that carried New Jersey to the playoffs.
PLAYOFF EXPERIENCE: While Tampa Bay has young players such as Brayden Point, Yanni Gourde and Anthony Cirelli set to play key roles for the first time, the Lightning has 13 players from the team that reached the Stanley Cup Finals three years ago.
“Experience is what you make of it. Naturally, it’s good to have gone through some of these situations before, but I look at our team in 2015, we didn’t have that much experience but we were able to get through,” Cooper said. “What I like about our group is we have a lot of guys that have played in a Cup Final as recently as a few years ago, and I think they are all playing with that chip on their shoulder.”
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