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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: Devils host Rangers on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After both teams missed the playoffs last season (first time that’s happened since 1976-77), the Devils and Rangers scored big in the Draft Lottery by winning the 1st and 2nd picks, respectively, following their regular-season finish as bottom-dwellers of the Metro Division. New Jersey selected the consensus top prospect Jack Hughes, a Florida native whose brother was selected seventh overall by Vancouver in the 2018 Draft, while New York went with Finnish-born Kaapo Kakko.

The Rangers opened the season with wins in their first two games before falling to Edmonton on Saturday, 4-1. New York plays a back-to-back with a game at Washington on Friday night. New Jersey has started the season winless through six games, having been outscored 27-13 (not including shootout goals). The Devils are the 11th team in the last 12 seasons to go winless through its first six games. Only one of those clubs made the playoffs.

Against Florida on Monday, New Jersey blew a three-goal lead midway through the game and lost 6-4. The Devils are the only team in the NHL without a win. Along with Monday’s meltdown, the Devils also lost a 4-0 lead in their season-opening shootout loss to the Winnipeg Jets. Chants of “Fire Hynes” echoed through the arena during the loss to the Panthers.

The biggest question mark standing in the way of the Rangers rebuilding plan is 37-year-old Henrik Lundqvist. He has already cemented himself as one of the greatest Rangers ever. But there remains some question as to whether he will be their goaltender if/when the time comes to compete for a Cup once again. He is still their guy for now, but he will have to bounce back from a disappointing season.

[COVERAGE OF DEVILS-RANGERS BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: New Jersey Devils at New York Rangers
WHERE: Prudential Center
WHEN: Thursday, Oct. 17, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Devils-Rangers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

DEVILS
Taylor Hall – Jack Hughes – Kyle Palmieri
Blake ColemanTravis ZajacWayne Simmonds
Nikita GusevPavel ZachaJesper Bratt
Miles WoodKevin RooneyJohn Hayden

Damon SeversonP.K. Subban
Will ButcherSami Vatanen
Mirco Mueller – Matt Tennyson

Starting goalie: Mackenzie Blackwood

RANGERS
Artemi PanarinMika ZibanejadPavel Buchnevich
Chris KreiderBrett Howden – Kaapo Kakko
Brendan SmithRyan StromeJesper Fast
Brendan LemieuxLias AnderssonGreg McKegg

Brady SkjeiTony DeAngelo
Libor HajekJacob Trouba
Marc StaalAdam Fox

Starting goalie: Alexandar Georgiev

Kathryn Tappen will host NHL Live on Thursday with analysts Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones. Kenny Albert, Mike Milbury and Pierre McGuire will have the call from Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

Stunning Numbers: Connor McDavid edition

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Throughout the 2019-20 NHL season will take an occasional look at some stunning numbers around the NHL. Today we look at Connor McDavid‘s incredible start for the Edmonton Oilers. 

Connor McDavid single handedly destroyed the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday night, tallying five points in the Oilers’ 6-3 win to continue their surprising start, improving their record to 6-1-0.

It is one of the best starts in franchise history and, to the surprise of exactly no one, is being almost completely driven by the team’s two-headed monster of McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

Both players are great, but McDavid is the one we are going to focus on here because, well, he just continues to be a real life cheat code on the ice when it comes to producing offense.

Just seven games into the season he is already well on his way to a fourth consecutive 100-point season, something that only 13 players in the history of the league have done. No one has done it since 1993, and the majority of the instances came during the 1980s. McDavid, truly, is a player from another time.

With his five points on Wednesday (in only 18 minutes of ice time!) he is already up to 17 points in the Oilers’ first seven games of the season. The only player in the league within two points of him is Draisaitl as the two continue to dunk all over their opponents.

Let’s put this start into some perspective with some stunning numbers.

[Related: Another 100-point season would put McDavid in exclusive club]

• He is the first player since Mario Lemieux during the 1995-96 season to record at least 17 points in the first seven games of a season. Before that, you have to go back to Wayne Gretzky during the 1993-94 season. The only players to do it dating back to the 1979-80 season are McDavid, Lemieux, Gretzky, Bernie Nicholls (while playing alongside Gretzky), Kevin Stevens, Rob Brown (the latter two while playing next to Lemieux), Peter Stastny, Marcel Dionne, Brent Sutter, and Mike Bossy.

To add to that, just look at how this start compares to some of Gretzky’s best seasons in Edmonton…

When you are doing something in 2019 that Gretzky used to do in the 80s you are doing something truly spectacular.

• McDavid has 17 points. The Oilers have 29 goals. That means McDavid has scored or assisted on 59 percent of the team’s goals, an absurd number even for McDavid (who is usually around 50 percent for the Oilers throughout his career). He has also been on the ice for 21 of the team’s goals (72 percent!) while the Oilers have only surrendered seven (all situations). When he is NOT on the ice the Oilers have been outscored 12-8 by their opponents. The only game he did not record a point in so far this season was the Oilers’ only loss (3-1 in against Chicago on Tuesday night).

• Just for reference, here is how McDavid has started each season in his career through seven games.

2015-16: 6 points — finished with 48 points in 45 games
2016-17: 12 points — finished with 100 points in 82 games
2017-18: 8 points — finished with 108 points in 82 games
2018-19: 13 points — finished with 116 points in 78 games

• He is currently on a 199-point pace for the season, a mark that only Gretzky and Lemieux and have ever reached in NHL history. Let’s be honest, he is not going to maintain that pace over a full season, simply because this isn’t 1985 anymore and the NHL just isn’t built for those sort of numbers. But with 17 points in seven games, if he simply maintained a 1.32 point per game average over the remaining 75 games that would still put him at 116 points again. If he scored at the 1.48 pace he played at a year ago that would put him at 128 points this season. Assuming he stays healthy, somewhere in the neighborhood of 116 and 128 points seems like a realistic possibility.

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.

Maple Leafs’ Tavares out at least two weeks with broken finger

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It has been a bit of a slow start for the Toronto Maple Leafs and they received a bit of bad news on Thursday afternoon that won’t make things any easier.

The team announced that captain John Tavares will be sidelined for at least the next two weeks due to a broken finger that he suffered during the team’s 4-3 loss to the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night.

Tavares will be re-evaluated by the team in two weeks when a more definitive timetable on his return will be known.

He was injured when he was struck by a Morgan Rielly slap shot during Wednesday’s game.

In eight games this season Tavares has three goals (including one goal on Wednesday) and four assists. He scored 47 goals for the Maple Leafs a year ago in his first season with the team.

Following Wednesday’s loss the Maple Leafs are 4-3-1 through their first eight games and are still struggling defensively, showing all of the flaws that have slowed them down in recent years. Now they will be without one of their best offensive players for what will probably at least the next six games, if not more. During this upcoming stretch the Maple Leafs play Boston two times, including their next game on Saturday night, and will also play Columbus, San Jose, Washington, Montreal, Philadelphia twice, Los Angeles, and Vegas. Not the most daunting schedule, but not exactly the easiest, either.

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.

Golden Knights’ Zykov suspended 20 games for PED violation

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The NHL announced on Thursday afternoon that Vegas Golden Knights forward Valentin Zykov has been suspended 20 games without pay for violating the league’s performance enhancing substance program.

Along with the suspension, Zykov is now subject to mandatory referral to the NHL/NHLPA Program for Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health for evaluation and possible treatment.

The 24-year-old Zykov has appeared in seven games this season, recording two assists while averaging 11 minutes of ice-time per game.

The Golden Knights released a statement in support of the league’s decision.

“We were notified by the NHL and NHLPA that Valentin has violated the terms of the NHL/NHLPA Performance Enhancing Substances Program. We monitor the nutrition, supplement intake, and overall diet of our athletes on a continual basis throughout our entire season. Valentin knowingly used a banned substance without the consent, recommendation or knowledge of our team. We support the NHL/NHLPA Performance Enhancing Substances Program and respect the decision here.”

Zykov also issued a statement via the NHLPA.

“I’ve been informed that I am being suspended for 20 games under the NHL/NHLPA Performance Enhancing Substances Program.  While I haven’t been able to discover how I tested positive, I understand that I am responsible for what is in my body and will accept this penalty.  I want to apologize to my family, my teammates, and the Golden Knights organization and fans.  I will work hard during my suspension to ensure that I put myself in the best possible position to contribute to my team when my suspension is over.”

This is the second time in as many years that a Golden Knights player has been suspended for a PED violation after defenseman Nate Schmidt also missed 20 games a year ago.

In that instance, the Golden Knights strongly disagreed with the results and the suspension. It was reported back in September that Schmidt has been working with the NHLPA to help reform the NHL’s current drug testing program in an effort to raise the minimum standard for suspension. Regarding his suspension, Schmidt argued that an “environmental contamination” was the reason for his failed test, and that the amount that was found was the equivalent of a pinch of a salt in an Olympic sized swimming pool.

Schmidt appealed his suspension only to have it be upheld.

The fact the Golden Knights were so strong in their statement of support for Zykov’s suspension is a strong sign that Zykov does not have the same argument that Schmidt did, and that any appeal would be unlikely to be won.

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.