Kucherov, Vasilevskiy shine as Lightning eliminate Devils in 5

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One’s up for the Hart as the NHL’s best player while the other is up for the Vezina as the league’s top goaltender. Both combined their talents to eliminate the New Jersey Devils with a 2-1 win in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Saturday.

Nikita Kucherov was once again on point for the Tampa Bay Lightning in Saturday’s matinee. Leading 1-0 in the third period, Kucherov scored a clutch goal — his fifth of the series — to put the Lightning from just inside the blue line to put the Bolts up two with seven minutes and change remaining.

It proved vital, Kucherov’s goal, as the Devils attempted a late comeback with Kyle Palmieri scored with three minutes remaining after Devils pulled Cory Schneider for the extra attacker 30 seconds earlier.

Andrei Vasilevskiy stood tall in the final 180 seconds, stopping 26-of-27 to help usher the Lightning into the second round.

Tampa, the Atlantic Division winners in the regular season, will face the winner of the series between the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, who play later on Saturday in Game 5. The Bruins lead the series 3-1.

Kucherov was as immense for the Lightning as he was oppressive for the Devils, adding five assists to bring his series total to 10 points. His usual scoring touch was supplemented by his play in the physical department, including this bone-crushing hit on New Jersey defenseman Sami Vatanen.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

For the Devils, it was hard-fought series from a young team still trying to find its way in the playoffs.

The Devils abandoned goalie Keith Kinkaid after dropping the first two games. Cory Schneider, who hadn’t won a game in 2018 before Game 3, came in and provided the spark in goal, one that seemed to get the Devils going at the other end of the rink as well as they rolled to a 5-3 win.

But that well ran dry in Game 4 as the Devils produced just one goal in a 3-1 loss. Game 5 was much the same, production-wise, with the Devils only managing one goal.

Fellow Hart Trophy candidate Taylor Hall provided two goals and six points in the series after a 93-point regular season. Rookie Nico Hischier managed just a goal after scoring 20 in his rookie campaign.

For Vasilevskiy, after looking far more human in the second half of the season, finding his mojo again can only be mean bad things for future playoff opponents.

The young Russian finished with a .941 save percentage in the series.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

What can Devils do to slow down Lightning offense?

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Even though they finished the regular season with the best record in the Eastern Conference and the third best record in the entire NHL there didn’t seem to be a ton of optimism surrounding the Tampa Bay Lightning entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs. At least compared to what you might expect from a top seed. A lot of that was probably due to the fact that they kind of backed into the playoffs with a 6-6-1 record to end the regular season.

After two games in their first-round series against the New Jersey Devils it is starting to look like any concern with this team may have been a little overstated.

None of it matters now.

With their 5-3 win on Saturday afternoon the Lightning have taken control of their first-round series and own a 2-0 series lead as it shifts to New Jersey for Monday night.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

What had to be especially frustrating for the Devils is they didn’t really play a terrible game and, despite what the final score might tell you, did a lot of things well.

At times they were able to limit the number of chances the Lightning were able to generate.

Nico Hischier, their prized 19-year-old rookie, scored his first career playoff goal.

They were able to apply a little bit of pressure, especially in the third period, and create some chances on Andrei Vasilevskiy. Even if a lot of that may have simply been the result of the Lightning sitting back with a three-goal lead entering the period, New Jersey still didn’t go away without a fight and made things a little tense for home crowd.

But for all of the things they may have done well they just simply did not — and do not — have the talent to match up with what the Lightning have throughout their lineup, and that is going to be the problem going forward in this series. When the score was closer early in the game the Lightning were controlling the puck and scoring goals at will.

Trying to figure out how to match that depth and slow down what Tampa Bay has throughout its lineup almost seems impossible for the Devils at this point.

All year depth was a concern for this team.

One of the biggest arguments in support of Taylor Hall‘s MVP bid was that he finished the season with 41 more points than any other player on the roster and had a hand 38 percent of their goals. That is great for him and shows just how dominant he was offensively and how special his season was. It also speaks to the lack of depth the Devils’ lineup had beyond their top player.

Through the first two games of this series against Tampa Bay has already scored 10 goals with contributions from players all over the lineup. Not just the big guys at the top. Sure, Nikita Kucherov has four points already, but look at what the other lines and players are doing. Alex Killorn has three goals.  The Brayden Point, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat line has already combined for four goals. The fourth line hasn’t provided any offense, but they have at least controlled the puck and kept the Devils off the board, which is probably the best you can hope for from the fourth line.

It’s a ridiculously balanced lineup and for as much pressure as the Devils were able to put on late on Saturday (starting when the game was already 5-1 on the scoreboard) they just don’t have the firepower to consistently match that.

The first thing the Devils have to do: Stay out of the penalty box.  The Lightning had the second best power play unit in the NHL this season and it has already burned the Devils four times in this series. That can not continue.

Then there is the goaltending question.

Keith Kinkaid probably exceeded expectations this season when filling in for Cory Schneider and played exceptionally well during the stretch run of the regular season. He has struggled through the first two games and ended up getting pulled on Saturday after surrendering five goals on 15 shots.

Schneider only faced 10 shots in relief and stopped them all.

Even so, the fix for the Devils in this series probably isn’t as simple as a goaltending change, especially when Schneider has not been the same goalie over the past two years. Their best hope is to slow the pace of the game down as much as possible at 5-on-5, stop taking dumb penalties (like the Kyle Palmieri unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that resulted in another Tampa Bay power play goal), and hope that their second-third-and-fourth lines can keep things even long enough for Hall to take over when he gets on the ice.

If that seems like it’s asking a lot, that is because it is. That is just the talent gap that exists between these two teams.

For as much talk as there was down the stretch about the Lightning’s struggles, they still went 13-6-2 in their final 20 games. Sure, only seven of those wins came in regulation, but they still scored 73 goals and averaged 3.65 goals per game during that stretch. Even when they were “struggling” they were still lighting up the scoreboard unlike any other team in the league. They are still a force to be reckoned with. And even on a day where the Devils did a lot of good things and played reasonably well it still wasn’t enough.

That has to be frustrating. And concerning for where this series goes from here because it doesn’t seem like the Devils really have another level to go above what they did at times on Saturday. It still was not close to enough.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Lightning vs. Devils: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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The Tampa Bay Lightning locked up a playoff spot before April even began, and the only real drama they faced boiled down to whether or not they’d win their division. The New Jersey Devils, meanwhile, scratched and clawed their way to their last game of the season.

Maybe that lack of urgency and Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s fatigue conspired to make the Bolts’ finish to 2017-18 a little less than inspiring? Tampa Bay went 5-4-1 in its last 10 games, as just one example, with Vasilevskiy and Nikita Kucherov losing significant ground in their respective trophy races.

The Lightning still finished atop the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, going 54-23-5 for 113 standings points. The Devils finished one point ahead of the Florida Panthers for the East’s final wild card, generating 97 standings points on a 44-29-9 record.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Even with a less-than-spectacular finish to the season, the Lightning are heavy favorites. Tampa Bay ranks among the biggest favorites of any team in the first round on account of its strengths and the Devils’ perceived weaknesses.

Beyond the momentum angle, the Devils might pin their hopes on sweeping the season series against the Lightning. They won once in a shootout and twice in regulation. Maybe New Jersey matches up well with Tampa Bay?

Let’s break this series down.

SCHEDULE

FORWARDS

Lightning: It’s easy to look at the Lightning as just the one-two punch of a successfully returning Steven Stamkos (27 goals, 86 points) and Kucherov, who hit the 100-point mark for the first time in his wildly underrated career. The frightening part is that it’s not even just about them, nor J.T. Miller in Vladislav Namestnikov‘s old spot.

This series might clue in casual hockey fans that Brayden Point is a rising star. He scored 32 goals and 66 points this season, doing so in sometimes spectacular ways:

Yanni Gourde would also receive way more Calder Trophy buzz in a normal season, as he scored 25 goals and 64 points. The Lightning also have some other nice forwards, including Tyler Johnson (21 goals, 50 points), Alex Killorn, and Ondrej Palat. It should be noted that, while Palat only scored 35 points, he was limited to 56 games.

The biggest injury question revolves around Stamkos, who missed some late-season games. Will he be 100 percent either by Game 1 or merely sometime in this series?

Devils: It’s well-publicized but true: the drop off from Taylor Hall (93 points) to the second-best Devils scorer (Nico Hischier, 52 points) is drastic.

Hall deservedly gets Hart Trophy buzz, and he’s the single player who could will the Devils to upset victories against the Bolts in his first-ever visit to the postseason.

It’s unfair to say that he’s the only weapon for New Jersey. Despite being limited to 62 games, Kyle Palmieri continues to be an under-the-radar gem, scoring 24 goals and 44 points. Patrick Maroon has been a boon via the trade deadline, collecting 13 points in 17 games with the Devils. Michael Grabner‘s been quiet, but his speed and skill could be useful in a short series, especially with the motivation of a contract year hanging over his head.

AdvantageLightning. Few teams possess the arsenal that Tampa Bay boasts.

DEFENSEMEN

Lightning: Victor Hedman may very well win the Norris Trophy this season. You can argue until your face turns blue over who deserves that nod, but he certainly earned the right to be in the discussion, generating 63 points in 77 games while playing great defense.

Mikhail Sergachev might be a work in progress, yet his offense is already formidable, as the rookie collected 40 points this season despite modest ice time (15:21 minutes per game). They can enjoy the best of both worlds as they protect him and then deploy him for scoring situations.

Ryan McDonagh is still adjusting to Tampa Bay. This is the time they got him for, as he could be a key piece in matchups. He’s joined by other former Rangers Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi, though the Lightning probably want to limit Girardi’s exposure (even after a relatively decent season).

Devils: New Jersey still looks weak on defense on paper, but credit the Devils with adding some talent in that area.

Sami Vatanen is developing into a workhorse for the Devils, averaging 22:44 per game while scoring 28 points in 57 games. Will Butcher has a ways to go in his own end, but he already generated 44 points in his first NHL season.

Damon Severson, Andy Greene, and John Moore are among those blueliners who can prove that they’re worth more of a look with a strong playoffs.

Advantage: Lightning, by a significant margin.

GOALIES

Lightning: Andrei Vasilevskiy may still be a Vezina finalist, and it’s easy to see why with a 44-17-3 record, .920 save percentage, and eight shutouts. He’s also proven himself in postseason play before, generating that same .920 save percentage in 12 career playoff appearances.

His recent play is the elephant in the room, as he admitted himself to fatigue late in 2017-18. Consider that he generated a brilliant .931 save percentage in 41 games before the All-Star break, only to slide to a bad-backup-level .902 save percentage in 24 games after the break.

Louis Domingue hasn’t really inspired any confidence as his backup.

Devils: With Cory Schneider seemingly at a career crisis, the Devils turned to Keith Kinkaid. Kinkaid proved unexpectedly sturdy for New Jersey, producing a four-game winning streak to help them lock down that playoff spot, and also generating a .913 save percentage over 41 appearances.

AdvantageLightning, even though Vasilevskiy’s energy comes into question.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Lightning: The Bolts’ power play ranks among the NHL’s deadliest, boasting a 23.9-percent success rate on 66 power-play goals and just three shorthanded goals allowed. Their penalty kill struggled, however, with a PK% of just 76.1 percent, fourth-worst in the NHL (64 PPGA, nine shorthanded goals for).

Devils: New Jersey connected on 21.4 percent of its power plays, good for 54 PPG and six SHGA. They excelled on the PK, tying for seventh in the NHL by killing 81.8 percent of their penalties (47 power-play goals allowed, 12 shorthanded goals scored).

Advantage: Devils, as they mix a very nice power play with one of the better PK units, especially when you consider how dangerous they are with 12 shorthanded goals. That said, the Lightning’s power play is so dominant, it might make that balance irrelevant.

X-FACTORS

Lightning: Is Vasilevskiy going to be anywhere close to his best self or his tank truly empty? This Lightning team is balanced and dangerous at the top, but bad goaltending can submarine even the strongest teams.

Devils: Taylor Hall in his first playoff series. It’s a great story, and there’s a solid chance that he’ll be the best player on the ice. Could he be such a force that he tilts this series in New Jersey’s favor?

PREDICTION

Lightning in five games. The Bolts possess the top-heavy talent to nullify Taylor Hall, and even if they lose that battle, they’re likely to dominate from a depth perspective. Vasilevskiy also gives them an advantage in net … at least on paper.

If you’re a Devils fan grumbling right now, consider this: New Jersey seems to thrive on defying the odds. Why not do it in the first round, too?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL Playoff Races: Blues end Blue Jackets’ run at 10

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With points at a premium for teams in the NHL’s bubble races, sometimes it’s about digging deep … and maybe getting a bounce or two.

All four division leaders either hold huge or at least comfortable edges over their competitors through Saturday, so let’s focus on teams that are in more urgent battles for positioning, if not spots altogether.

Blues > Blue Jackets

After rattling off 10 consecutive wins, the Columbus Blue Jackets fell short against the St. Louis Blues in a 2-1 regulation decision. St. Louis is on a nice run of its own, as this gutsy win gives them five in a row.

Jake Allen ended up winning a goaltending duel with Sergei Bobrovsky, as Allen turned aside 33 out of 34 shots on goal. Vladimir Tarsenko scored a very “Vladimir Tarasenko” goal as the decisive tally:

Earlier on Saturday, the Avalanche beat the Golden Knights 2-1 via a shootout, so the Avalanche and Blues now hold the West’s wild-card spots. Each team could conceivably creep into the Central’s top three, yet they also don’t have a lot of room ahead of the idle Anaheim Ducks. (Update: Minnesota ended up beating Nashville, widening its lead.)

Third in Central: Wild (defeats Nashville) – 92 points, 74 games, 38 ROW
First WC: Avs – 90 points, 75 GP, 40 ROW
Second WC: Blues – 89 points, 75 GP, 39 ROW

Update – Third in Pacific:  Ducks – 89 points, 75 GP, 34 ROW
Ninth place: Kings (after loss to Oilers) – 89 points, 76 GP, 39 ROW

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

Gutsy wins by Devils and Panthers

For quite some time, it looked like the Arizona Coyotes might play the spoiler against the Florida Panthers.

Florida entered the third period down 2-0, but Vincent Trocheck helped them rally with two goals, pushing him to 30 on the season. Denis Malgin ended up collecting the game-winner in an eventual 4-2 win for the Panthers, who willed their way to a big win.

The New Jersey Devils probably rank as even more impressive. One night after gutting out an overtime win against the defending champion Penguins, the Devils beat the East-leading, more-rested Lightning by a score of 2-1. Taylor Hall assisted on the game-winner by Kyle Palmieri after scoring in OT on Friday, while Nico Hischier had two goals in as many nights.

Keith Kinkaid was even better closing out back-to-back wins, as he stopped 35 out of 36 shots on goal against the dangerous Lightning.

With the Atlantic top three essentially locked in and the Capitals closing in on the Metropolitan Division crown, take a look at the Metro’s other two spots, the two wild-card holders, and where the Panthers rank after a busy Saturday:

METRO2: Penguins – 90 points, 75 GP, 40 ROW
METRO3: CBJ – 89 points, 76 GP, 36 ROW

East WC1: Flyers – 88 points, 75 GP, 36 ROW
East WC2: Devils – 86 points, 75 GP, 34 ROW

Ninth: Panthers – 83 points, 73 GP, 35 ROW

With three games in hand on the Blue Jackets and two on the other relevant Metro teams ahead of them, the Panthers are in a strong position to push their way into the postseason if they can keep things going.

Imagine how Florida felt going into the third. They lost their most recent game to Columbus by a humbling score of 4-0, and were down 2-0 with a four-game road trip looming. Saturday could have delivered a punch to the gut; instead, they kept fighting and demanded a big win.

Losing in regulation keeps Columbus from a) at least briefly grabbing a round of home-ice advantage and b) creating a meaningful cushion ahead of the bubble pack. They remain in third in the Metro even after this loss, but this one stings.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Devils should never stop thanking Oilers for Taylor Hall

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The New Jersey Devils have put themselves in a pretty good position when it comes to ending their playoff drought that goes all the way back to the 2011-12 season. After defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday night, 3-2, they sit nine points clear of the first non-playoff team in the Eastern Conference and are just two points out of one of the top-three spots in the Metropolitan Division.

Given how hard it is for teams to make up ground this late in the season, they should be feeling pretty good.

They still have the Edmonton Oilers to thank for being in this position.

It was less than two years ago that the Oilers sent Taylor Hall, one of the best left wingers in the sport, to New Jersey in a one-for-one swap for defenseman Adam Larsson.

At the time it was a stunning trade was widely panned outside of Edmonton.

Today, it is a pretty much an embarrassment.

On Tuesday, in a game that featured Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel, none of them were the best player on the ice. It was Hall, as he caused havoc every time he entered the game, forcing turnovers, disrupting the Penguins’ defense, adding to his points streak (now at 22 games) with a goal and an assist to help the Devils pretty much beat the Penguins at their own game.

It was a sight to behold, and every single time the puck touched his stick, or every single time he created a chance, the only thought that could go through your mind was “how did somebody in charge of an NHL hockey team think trading this guy was going to make their team better?”

With 68 points in 58 games this season his place in the MVP discussion has gone from, well maybe he has a pretty good argument, to he should probably be one of the three finalists.

He is sixth in the NHL in points per game and second to only Brad Marchand among left-wingers.

During his point streak, which started on the first day of the new year, he has recorded 32 points and had a hand (either scoring the goal or assisting the goal) in 49 percent of the Devils’ total goals during that stretch. That number on its own without any sort of context would be amazing.

When you consider that Hall did not play in three of the Devils’ games during that stretch due to injury it is absolutely incredible.

He has done for the Devils what the Oilers hoped he would do for them, and something they never really gave him an opportunity to do — give the team an identity and help change the fortunes of the franchise.

With Hall in place, and a few lucky bounces of the ping pong balls in the draft lottery, and a few shrewd additions by general manager Ray Shero, the Devils look like an entirely different team than the one that was taking the ice just two short years ago. With Hall, Michael Grabner, Miles Wood and five other players under the age of 24 the Devils are a young, fast team that looks like it is built to play in the NHL in 2018.

They can fly all over the ice. They can put pressure on opponents. They are actually — and I can’t believe this is something we can say about the New Jersey Devils — kind of fun to watch.

It’s definitely a career year for Hall, which is not surprising given that he is in his age 26 season, usually around the point where players are in their peak.

But it’s not like Hall hasn’t always been one of the most productive players in the NHL throughout his career.

From the time he entered the NHL as the top pick in 2010 through his trade out of Edmonton, he was 22nd in the NHL among all players in points per game (minimum 200 games played) and fourth among all left wingers. If you remove his rookie season when he was only 19 years old, he goes up to 13th and third respectively. The only two players on that list ahead of him to be traded at any point in their careers are Martin St. Louis and Tyler Seguin. St. Louis requested a trade. Seguin was traded by the guy that also traded Taylor Hall.

Hall was the only player in the top-15 that never played in the playoffs during that stretch. The 12 players ahead of him combined for only 10 missed playoff appearances during that stretch. It’s more of a damning statement about the Oilers’ inability to build a team around an elite player than it is about Hall. Edmonton’s inability to build a team around Connor McDavid on an entry-level contract only seems to confirm that.

Since being hired by the Devils Ray Shero has made some pretty bold trades to get the team headed back in the right direction.

Getting Kyle Palmieri from the Anaheim Ducks for a couple of draft picks was steller. Injuries have derailed his season, but the same could one day be said for getting Marcus Johansson in a trade with the Washington Capitals. He made some quality moves at the deadline to improve their depth for the stretch run by adding Grabner and Patrick Maroon without really giving up anything of significance. He got a little bit of good fortune in the draft lottery by having everything go his way to land Nico Hischier.

All of those moves working in unison have helped put the Devils in a position to where they could finally return to the playoffs.

But nothing compares to the good fortune, or has had the same impact, as happening to catch Edmonton feeling that it absolutely had to trade away one of the best players in the league in a one-for-one swap.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.