For the Tampa Bay Lightning, there were consistently two teams in the Eastern Conference that they just could not figure out during the 2017-18 season. The first team was the Boston Bruins, who, despite a decisive victory in their final match-up, still flummoxed the Lightning at all turns this season.
The other team was the New Jersey Devils, the Lightning’s opponent in the first round of the NHL Playoffs. For whatever the reason, the Devils have just had the Lightning’s number over the last 18 months. Since 2016, the Lightning are just 2-3-1 against the Devils, including three straight losses to them this season. It’s not just that they are losing, however, it’s how they been unable to find their game against New Jersey that should concern the Lightning.
Lightning Struggling Against Devils’ Play
Recently, whenever the Lightning face-off against the Devils, fans often describe the games as boring to watch. This is caused by New Jersey playing a heavy game against the Bolts, standing tall at the blueline in order to mitigate the Lightning’s speed while entering the zone. Much like Boston, New Jersey understood early on that the majority of Tampa Bay’s gameplan revolves around entering the offensive zone quickly, which spreads out defenses and allows them to set up passes to get the perfect shot on net.
So, New Jersey does their best to shut down this entry, keeping the puck and the Lightning out of their end as much as possible. This makes for a slower than Tampa Bay is used to playing, which can cause frustration for the team as basic actions like skating and passing become difficult endeavors. As the game progresses, they start overthinking at the blueline, which causes sloppy turnovers and oftentimes leads to a scoring chance for New Jersey.
Lightning Have to Stop Devil’s Secondary Scoring
In their three losses against the Devils this season, Taylor Hall did not score a goal against the Lightning. Instead, they gave up 11 goals in three games to eight different players. While New Jersey has been a fairly average team offensively throughout the year, they have found success up and down their line-up against Tampa Bay.
If they hope to win this series, Tampa Bay has to slow down New Jersey’s depth scoring that burned throughout the season. Many of the goals they gave up came from the aforementioned sloppy play at the blueline, which is a fixable issue for the team. If the Lightning can clean up these mistakes, it will limit the easy goals against while forcing Hall and the rest of the top line to shoulder the majority of the scoring responsibility for the Devils.
Kinkaid’s Play Will Decide Series
One of the best stories of the 2017-18 season is Keith Kinkaid, who started the year as New Jersey’s backup goaltender and ended it by taking over the No. 1 spot from Cory Schneider. His strong play stabilized the Devils, allowing them to turn their fast start to the season into sustainable success and a playoff spot.
While he had a fantastic regular season, this will be Kinkaid’s first time in the playoffs. These situations often lead to one of two outcomes – either the Lightning will chase him from the net during the series, forcing Schneider to start a game, or he will stay at midseason form, shutting down the Bolts and winning the series for the Devils.
If the Lightning want to progress in the postseason, they will have to shake Kinkaid’s confidence before he becomes comfortable with the playoff atmosphere. This is easier said than done, though, as New Jersey’s new No. 1 goalie has to be brimming with confidence after his momentous year in net. If they are unable to solve Kinkaid in their early home games, he very well could carry the Devils to a first-round victory.
Experience Favors Lightning, Momentum Favors Devils
In many ways, the Lightning’s biggest advantage over the Devils is their extensive playoff experience. The majority of the team has been on two deep playoff runs together, and they understand how to fight through the adversity of the postseason. On the other hand, the Devils are relatively inexperienced in the postseason, with many of their player making their playoff debuts in Game 1.
A loss on opening night could be devastating for a team that struggled throughout the second half of the season. If the Lightning can get out in front of the Devils early in the series, they might be able to rattle the young team and gain an upper hand in the process. Heading into the postseason, though, New Jersey is red hot, having won seven of their last 10 games. If they can take Game 1 and/or Game 2 in Tampa, the Bolts will be hard pressed to wrestle it back from them when it shifts to New Jersey.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.