Devils have beaten Lightning in all three regular season meetings
Sunday night was a time for celebration for Lightning fans. The Boston Bruins lost their second game in just a few days to the Florida Panthers, giving the Lightning the Atlantic Division title and home ice advantage in the Eastern Conference entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The difference in matchup is tremendous. Had Boston won, Tampa Bay’s first opponent would have been the Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the best teams in the entire conference and a tough matchup for anybody. Instead, the Lightning will face off against the last team into the playoffs in the New Jersey Devils.
While the division title is to be celebrated, the Devils are no easy opponent for the Lightning. Tampa Bay has struggled with the Devils all season long, losing in each of their three games this season. New Jersey’s style of play throws the Lightning off their game in a big way, and to advance it seems that Tampa Bay will need to quiet the concerns fans have had throughout their late season stumbles.
The New Jersey Devils match up pretty well against the Lightning considering the disparity in points between the two teams. Most notably, the Devils went undefeated against Tampa Bay this season, with one of the three wins coming by way of the dreaded and unsatisfying shootout.
The Devils play the Lightning well for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most important is that New Jersey has succeeded in taking away the middle of the ice for the Lightning for the bulk of the three games. This does a great deal to neutralize the potent Bolts attack across multiple lines, leaving them to battle for position in front of the goaltender or sending the wings to the boards to create from a distance. This is not Tampa Bay’s preferred style, and it throws the Lightning off their game.
Another reason New Jersey has given the Bolts fits is that the Devils do incredibly well at cycling the hockey puck in the offensive zone. Because of that, New Jersey is able to slow the game down. This is problematic for a Tampa Bay team that is not big on prolonged possession in fat times or lean ones. A team that spends a lot of time in the offensive zone, regardless of production, can suffocate a team like Tampa Bay that prefers more of a track meet style of hockey.
The Devils are deliberate in the offensive zone. They are at their best when they let their defensemen create plays for them, asking the likes of rookie Will Butcher to fire the puck in so that somebody up front can deflect it past the goaltender. This is where the Lightning’s defensive positioning will be put to the test from the very start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
When New Jersey has the puck in their offensive zone, it might be best then to watch in front of the net more than the player handling the puck. The Lightning cannot afford to let a New Jersey Devil be the player closest to Andrei Vasilevskiy. This is the kind of pacing that has plagued them all season long against teams like New Jersey and Boston.
Where the Lightning have their best opportunity, based on the Devils’ play so far this year, might be the forecheck. New Jersey struggles to handle an aggressive forecheck, leading to defensive zone turnovers and strong looks on net for opponents. With the Lightning likely to have Steven Stamkos back Thursday, it will be his ability to forecheck that could make the difference.
In net for the Devils is Keith Kinkaid, who emerged as the starting goaltender this year by outperforming longtime starter Corey Schneider. Kinkaid is playing his best hockey at the right time, going 11-2-1 since March as the Devils surged to the final spot in the Eastern Conference. In his one appearance against the Lightning, he stopped 35 of 36 shots in a win. Based on his form of the moment, it’s unlikely that Tampa Bay will get any soft goals.
Vasilevskiy is going to need to be on his game, but such is the case of any starting netminder in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In this case, it will be mission-critical for Vasilevskiy to stop breakaways, often from Taylor Hall. Hall is the Devils’ best playmaker, able to get himself behind the opponent where it’s just him and the goalie. He will get those opportunities against Tampa Bay, as the Lightning sometimes are known to try long cross-ice passes that create turnover opportunities for the other team. Hall is going to take one of those passes and he’ll be off to the races. What Vasilevskiy does with those breakaways could win or lose a critical game in this series.
Victor Hedman could be the Lightning’s most important skater in this series. Because of New Jersey’s ability to keep the Lightning on the edges of their offensive zone, Tampa Bay will need to be able to create from the blue line. Enter Hedman, as well as Anton Stralman and trade deadline acquisition Ryan McDonagh. Sometimes, a team has to take what they are given. Based on the Lightning and Devils’ three previous meetings, they will be given opportunities for defensemen to shoot and score. Capitalize, and it could be a short series.