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.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.