Will the Devils Catch the Lightning In A Bottle?
On opening night, Tampa Bay was listed as the second favorite to win the Stanley Cup at 10-1. Way down the board were the New Jersey Devils, fresh off a 70-point campaign, at 100-1. Only three teams had longer odds than the Devils.
Tampa is the obvious favorite, but the Devils aren’t without a slight chance in this one. New Jersey actually swept the season series against the Bolts, winning two of the three games in regulation and the other in overtime.
New Jersey (+260) vs. Tampa Bay (-320)
Game 1: Thursday, April 12, New Jersey at Tampa Bay, 7 p.m. ET, NHL Network
Game 2: Saturday, April 14, New Jersey at Tampa Bay, 3 p.m. ET, NBC
Game 3: Monday, April 16, Tampa Bay at New Jersey, 7:30 p.m. ET, CNBC
Game 4: Wednesday, April 18, Tampa Bay at New Jersey, 7:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel (no, really)
*Game 5: Saturday, April 21, New Jersey at Tampa Bay, TBD
*Game 6: Monday, April 23, Tampa Bay at New Jersey, TBD
*Game 7: Wednesday, April 25, New Jersey at Tampa Bay, TBD
Setting the stage: Tampa did secure the top spot and home ice throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, thanks to a Bruins loss in the season finale, but the Lightning come into this game far from peak form. After starting 48-17-4, the Bolts have played average hockey of late, compiling a 6-6-1 record over their past 13 games. Also, in 2018, they’ve only played .500 puck against playoff teams (9-9). Meanwhile, the Devils come in on a roll, having won 10 of their last 14 (10-3-1). I will note however that New Jersey’s +4 regular season goal differential is worst among the playoff teams. — Stuckey
Injuries: Steven Stamkos has battled injuries over the past month, but he’ll suit up for Game 1, although he’s admittedly not operating at 100%. The Devils figure to be without forward Marcus Johansson, an underrated second-line asset, for at least the early part of the series.
The Numbers Do The Talkin’: Believe it or not, the Devils created more expected goals per 60 minutes (xGF/60) than the Lightning did at 5v5 this season (adjusted for score + venue). In terms of goals scored per 60, Tampa nets 2.89, which is the best mark in the league. While the Bolts don’t create all that many expected goals, they do generate plenty of scoring chances (31.3 per 60 minutes at 5v5). And with their talent up front, even the slightest scoring chance should worry their opponents.
Outside of their solid xGF/60, the Devils leave a lot to be desired under the hood. New Jersey has a sub-50 Corsi For % (a barometer for possession that measures the amount of shot attempts for vs. shot attempts allowed, also known as CF%). They were also actually outscored at 5v5 this season. Neither of those metrics are a formula for success.
What the Devils do have is Taylor Hall. The first pick of the 2010 draft had a sensational season and basically willed New Jersey to the playoffs on his own. Hall created the fifth-most goals in the league this season, per Hockey Reference. The star winger can tilt the ice against even the best opposition, but unfortunately for New Jersey, he can’t play 60 minutes. When Hall isn’t on the ice, the drop-off is significant. The Devils have a few solid middle-six guys up front, but their defense will be overwhelmed all series. — Michael Leboff
Goaltending: Things get kind of interesting in the blue paint. Let’s start with Tampa. In the early chunk of the season, Andrei Vasilevskiy seemed destined to win the Vezina Trophy. That’s no longer the case. The 23-year-old played a lot of hockey in his first season as a starter, so it’s not all that surprising that he didn’t maintain his form through the finish line. The Bolts’ No. 2 goalie is the underwhelming Louis Domingue, which could spell doom for Tampa if the Russian netminder doesn’t find his game. However, if he finds his form from the first 50 games, the Lightning could be an impossible out in the East.
This would have sounded crazy a few months ago, but the Devils have a big starting goalie decision to make. Cory Schneider has a much, much better track record than Keith Kinkaid. However, the latter has the hot hand right now, while the former has struggled since returning from injury. It’s a tough call, but the situation doesn’t look particularly rosy in net for the Devs regardless of who gets the nod.
From above, it looks like a clear edge in net for Tampa, but who the heck knows with these guys. –– Michael Leboff
Trends: Tampa opened -310 to win the series. In the last 10 years, series favorites of -300 or better have advanced 83% of the time (15-3). — John Ewing
Fun Fact: This is the first time since 1994 that a No. 1 seed went winless in the regular season against its first round opponent. — Evan Abrams
Player to Watch (Tampa Bay): The Lightning already have fantastic depth on the back end, but the addition of shutdown defenseman Ryan McDonagh at the trade deadline could pay dividends in the playoffs. He ranks in just the 50th percentile in shots per game over the past month, but his true value lies in how frequently he blocks shots (98th percentile). Tampa Bay allowed the ninth-most shots per game (32.7) in the regular season; if the Lightning hope to remedy that against New Jersey, McDonagh could be very important to the defensive side of this series. — Joe Holka
Player to Watch (New Jersey): Quietly, Tampa Bay owns the fourth-worst penalty kill in the league at 76.1%. New Jersey is merely above average on the power play this year (21.4%, which ranks 10th in the league), but the player most likely to victimize Tampa Bay on special teams is Hall. Who else? Hall scored or assisted on 38.3% of the Devils’ goals this year, including a staggering 67.3% of their power-play goals. — Joe Holka
Why Tampa Bay Should Win: All the Lightning need to do is hope things don’t get funky in this series. Weird stuff happens in small sample sizes, as luck can play a huge role in a seven-game series. If things stay on script, the Lightning should breeze.
Why New Jersey Can Win: Considering how poor the Devils’ peripheral stats are, it’s a minor miracle that they even made the playoffs. But the fact that they’re in the dance is all that matters right now. For New Jersey to have a shot, it needs to take advantage of a weak Tampa Bay penalty kill and hope to get all the bounces. Plus, Hall must be a monster. Likely? No. Possible? Yes. — Michael Leboff
Betting Value: There’s little value in this number either way. The line (-320) suggests the Bolts have ~76% chance of winning this series, which seems appropriate. That said, if the Devils steal game 1, I think you have to hit an adjusted series price on Tampa. — Stuckey
Leboff — Lightning in 6
Stuckey — Lightning in 6
Holka — Lightning in 4
Photo: New Jersey Devils goalie Cory Schneider makes a save on Tampa Bay Lightning center Brayden Point. Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports
Stats provided by Hockey Reference, Corsica.Hockey, Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com