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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.

WATCH LIVE: Boston Bruins at Tampa Bay Lightning

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PROJECTED LINES

Boston Bruins

Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak

Jake DeBruskDavid KrejciRyan Donato

Danton HeinenDavid BackesNoel Acciari

Tim Schaller — Colby Cave — Brian Gionta

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy

Torey KrugNick Holden

Matt GrzelcykKevan Miller

Starting goalie: Tuukka Rask

[Bruins – Bolts preview]

Tampa Bay Lightning

Ondrej PalatBrayden PointNikita Kucherov

J.T. MillerTyler JohnsonCory Conacher

Yanni GourdeAnthony CirelliAlex Killorn

Chris KunitzCedric PaquetteRyan Callahan

Victor HedmanAnton Stralman

Ryan McDonaghDan Girardi

Braydon CoburnMikhail Sergachev

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

Lightning looking to get ‘swagger back’ after tough few weeks

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The Tampa Bay Lightning have been one of the premiere teams in the NHL for most of the season, but there’s no denying that they haven’t been as dominant of late.

Last night, the Bolts dropped a 4-1 decision, at home, to the Arizona Coyotes. The ‘Yotes have been playing some good hockey of late, but that’s still a tough result on home ice.

“We’re looking for our swagger back,” last night’s starter Louis Domingue said, per the Tampa Times. “We were making little plays. We were making a difference out there on the ice. That’s why won 51 games. I think we’re looking for us to get that back and, obviously, we’ve been struggling the last couple of weeks, but I’m not worried about anything. I think we’re going to find our way back soon.”

Yes, they were without Steven Stamkos (lower body) and Andrei Vasilevskiy was given the night off. Still, falling flat at Amalie Arena against one of the worst teams in the league has to make you a little concerned if you’re a fan of the Lightning (even if Domingue isn’t worried).

Let’s look back at their last few games, where they’ve gone 3-4-0 in their last seven. On Mar. 13, the Lightning dropped a 7-4 home decision to Ottawa. They followed that up by losing to Boston on home ice (3-0), but they beat the Oilers in Tampa (3-1). The Bolts managed to overcome a 3-0 deficit to beat the Maple Leafs 4-3 and despite beating the Islanders by just one goal (7-6), they held a 7-3 lead in the third frame of that contest. They then lost a 2-1 game in New Jersey before suffering that ugly loss to Arizona.

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

Giving up three goals or more in five of seven games is less than ideal. Even the high-flying Lightning will have a hard time winning games if they continue to give up as many goals as they have been lately. Vasilevskiy, who has a league high 42 victories in 2017-18, has also allowed at least three goals in seven of his last eight games and in nine of his last 11.

Obviously, that doesn’t just fall on their starting netminder’s shoulders. The team in front of him can stand to be better, too. Over their last six games, the Lightning have given up between 30 and 41 shots against.

On the offensive side of the puck, players like Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov have continued producing at a high level, but members of the supporting cast have struggled. Alex Killorn (one point in eight games), Brayden Point (five points in last nine games, but three came vs. NYI), Tyler Johnson (one point in seven games) and Yanni Gourde (no goals in last nine games, two goals in last 19) have all dried up offensively.

When you clinch a playoff spot, it’s normal to take your foot off the pedal a little bit, so this slump isn’t totally unexpected. But they have to realize that they’re still in the chase for the Atlantic Division crown. Their slide might force them to play an opening-round series against the Maple Leafs instead of the Devils. No disrespect to New Jersey, but they’re probably the better matchup over a seven-game series.

The next few days will be challenging for Tampa, as they’ll play back-to-back road games against the Bruins and Rangers on Thursday and Friday before hosting the Predators and Bruins early next week. They’ll close out the year with games against non-playoff teams in Buffalo and Carolina.

It should be an interesting end to the season for the Lightning.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Bruins’ David Backes suffers leg laceration in collision (video)

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A scary scene unfolded in the first period between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the visiting Boston Bruins on Saturday night.

David Backes and Yanni Gourde came together in the Lightning crease, with Gourde’s skate appearing to cut Backes on the outside of his right leg.

Backes was able to make his way to the Bruins bench on his own, but he was clutching the back of his leg before getting some help down the tunnel.

Backes did not return to the game.

The Bruins said that Backes suffered a laceration above his right knee, which required several stitches to close.


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

Lightning’s Yanni Gourde finding NHL success after a long road traveled

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

If hockey hadn’t worked out for Tampa Bay Lightning forward Yanni Gourde, he would have found himself in the world of civil engineering.

“I like to understand how things work. I’m good at math, too, so it just interested me,” Gourde told Pro Hockey Talk on Friday.

There were plenty of times the thought of going to university passed through Gourde’s mind as he tried working his way up the hockey ladder to get a shot in the NHL. But the more he worked, the more he found himself going in the opposite direction.

Playing with the Victoriaville Tigres of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Gourde finished his junior career in 2011-12 with 37 goals and a league-best 124 points, three years after going undrafted. That wasn’t enough to garner any interest from NHL teams and once again he went undrafted. But it wasn’t like the St-Narcisse, Quebec native was concerned.

“I was never really seen as a prospect. In junior I never really looked at me having a chance to get drafted,” he said. “I just went on and played my junior career and tried to play the best way that I could and eventually get a tryout somewhere. It wasn’t my primary concern. I just wanted to play hockey, help my team win and try to go deep in playoffs.”

After playing parts of two seasons with the American Hockey League’s Worcester Sharks following a tryout, Gourde found himself down in the ECHL with the Kalamazoo Wings trying to figure out how to climb his way back up.

“My first year in pro hockey I really learned a lot about myself and how I was playing the game,” he said. “I was trying too much, trying too hard to make everything happen every single shift. When you realize that, you’ve got to slow things down and play the right way and go one shift at a time, play the right way every time you step on the ice. From that moment I just realized that was the better way to play on the pro level.”

As an undrafted, unknown player, you don’t get a long leash in professional hockey like most draft picks. For Gourde, all 5-foot-9 of him, it was easy for him to be overlooked and discarded by teams, and moving further and further away from the NHL had him thinking a breakthrough would never happen.

“I had doubt in my mind every single day since my first game… It’s tough to know what’s going to happen and how it’s going to happen,” he said. “As an undrafted [player], never seen as a prospect, it’s tough to really see yourself as an NHL player and see [yourself] as a regular player. I’m never going to take the chance I have right now for granted.”

Gourde played well in the ECHL to catch some eyes and in March 2014 he signed a contract with the Lightning and proceeded to lead their AHL affiliate in Syracuse in goals (29) and finish second in scoring behind Jonathan Marchessault with 57 points.

After following up that first AHL season with two more strong campaigns, injuries allowed the Lightning to give Gourde an extended look last season. He scored six times and recorded eight points in 20 games before going back to Syracuse and helping the Crunch during their run to the Calder Cup Final. He would finish second in AHL scoring with 27 postseason points and earn a two-year, $2 million extension.

That brief experience at the NHL level did wonders for Gourde’s confidence.

“It was huge. That’s where I knew from that moment that I could play in the NHL and from after that I just need to play my game and play the right way and go out there with the best effort every night and hopefully things are going to work out for me,” he said.

The contract was a nice feeling of security, but if Gourde’s journey taught him anything, it was that nothing is guaranteed. He understood that his spot on the Lightning wasn’t set in stone, and despite a new deal he could find himself once again moving in the wrong direction on hockey’s ladder.

While the Lightning are a much healthier team than a year ago, Gourde has carved out a spot as a regular in Jon Cooper’s lineup. His production — 22 goals, 43 points in 58 games — has entered his name in the long list of Calder Trophy candidates. While he’s eligible for the award at age 26 by three months, that’s not the trophy he’s thinking about receiving in June.

“To be honest, I don’t really think about [rookie of the year],” said Gourde, who’s fourth in rookie scoring. “Every day I’m coming to the rink, I go out on the ice and I want to get better. I don’t really look too much into stats and into what’s going on around in the league. I want to play my game. I want to be the best version of myself and try to get better. It’s flattering to be even just mentioned in those types of things but I just want to play good for my team and help my team win.”

Fine. Let his coach be his Calder hype man: ”Individual awards are garnered a ton because of the team’s success, and our team has had a lot of success, and Yanni Gourde has been a big part of it,” Cooper said earlier this month.

Gourde is just one of a number of Lightning players having outstanding seasons beyond the big names. Braydon Point and Vladislav Namestnikov have 39 goals combined and rookie defenseman Mikhail Sergachev has 30 points and is logging nearly 16 minutes a night.

The Lightning have the most points in the NHL (81) as of Friday and have positioned themselves as a Cup favorite in part because they aren’t being carried by just their top lines. Everyone is pitching in and the continued production of their depth will take this team far.

“All four lines are really good. Our top eight D are very good, too, and both of our goalies are excellent. It’s the depth of this organization and the way we come up together,” Gourde said. “We want to win games. We want to be dominant. We want to step on the ice and be the best team out there.

“It’s our mentality, how we approach games, and that’s been helping us win those games and trying to be consistent. We’re never satisfied, we always want [to be] better.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.