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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.

The top 15 saves of 2017 (PHT Year in Review)

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(Pro Hockey Talk is taking a look back at the year in hockey. We’ll be presenting you with the best goals, saves, moments, players and much more as we bring you the best of 2017.)

There might not be anything more satisfying in hockey than seeing a highway robbery in progress between the pipes.

The late flash of the leather, the desperation save off the paddle of the stick or the elusive two-pad stack. They are all things of beauty and should be cherished as such.

So as we get ready to ring in the New Year, PHT looks back at some of the best thieveries in the past 12 months.

15. The Kontinental Hockey League can be a treasure trove of great highlights that not everyone gets to see on a regular basis. This save by SKA Saint Petersburg’s Mikko Koskinen is no exception. Simply outstanding.

14. How often does a save of the year candidate come around for a goalie? What about two in the same game? Garrett Sparks of the Toronto Marlies accomplished this rare feat.

13. The stanchion can sometimes be the goalies worst enemy. Sometimes enemies must be conquered. Joseph Woll did just that for Boston College.

 

12. Talk about timely. University of British Columbia Thunderbirds goalie Derek Dun’s save was not only spectacular in nature, it also sent his team to the playoffs.

 

11. Perhaps the best save at the World Championships this past year, Philipp Grubauer got the tip of his stick on the puck to make an outrageous save on Kaspars Daugavins.

10. Dominik Hasek retired several years ago now, but some of his magic still lives on in the NHL. Jonathan Quick did his best Hasek impression with this kick save.

9. The goalie stick isn’t very wide in relation to the size of an NHL net, but there are still where it plays a pivotal role in stopping a puck from crossing the goal line, as seen here by Matt Murray.

8. Sometimes pucks take a weird deflection off the boards. Sometimes they result in the flukiest of goals. Goalies are often caught out of position, but as Pekka Rinne will now demonstrate, it’s not all lost:

7. Two-pad stack alert. Thank you, Martin Jones.

6. Robin Lehner dislocated his entire body to stone Bryan Rust.

5. Carey Price in overtime, what a sight to behold.

4. Jonathan Bernier on Damon Severson. If you’re Severson, you can’t even be mad, right?

3. Poor Henrik Zetterberg. A wide open net and surely a goal, but then…

2. Deke… open net… no goal. Devan Dubnyk does the unthinkable against Gustav Nyquist, who probably still can’t sleep.

1. We don’t all agree with John Tortorella at the best of times, but when he called this the best save of the year, he wasn’t lying. This is simply majestic from Bob, so smooth. No sketch, to borrow a term from skateboarding.

Previously:

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

Ray Shero’s redemption in New Jersey

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When Ray Shero was hired by the Pittsburgh Penguins back in 2006 he was taking over a team that, even though it had fallen on hard times and had been one of the worst in the league, was on the verge of a breakthrough thanks to a series of top draft picks that brought them a couple of franchise changing players (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin). Even though the team at the time was lousy, he was still inheriting a pretty decent situation just based on the young talent that was already in place.

In only a couple of years Shero had helped complement those young superstars with a team that would go play in two Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 and 2009, winning the latter in a thrilling seven-game series. He made some shrewd trades, found some value in free agency, and built a powerhouse team.

In the years after that Stanley Cup win, however, he seemed to lose a lot of that touch. There was too much loyalty to players that the Penguins had won with, too many draft picks were traded for short-term rentals that didn’t pan out and the Penguins quickly became a team that had a handful of superstars and no depth to speak of. The magic that he seemed to have early in his tenure seemed to be gone as nearly every move ended up backfiring in a huge way.

After one too many early postseason exits it eventually ended up costing Shero his job following the 2013-14 season.

It did not take him long to land on his feet with the New Jersey Devils replacing long-time general manager Lou Lamoriello.

Now in his third year running the Devils the team finds itself near the top of the Metropolitan Division looking to end what has become a five-year postseason drought.

It’s not only a potentially big development for the Devils, it’s also been a bit of a redemption story for Shero in the way he has rebuild the team from the ground up in a significant way thanks to some major moves.

The situation that Shero inherited in New Jersey couldn’t have been more different than the one he inherited in Pittsburgh.

With the Penguins, the most important pieces were already in place. It was a young team with huge potential where success seemed like it was destined. It wasn’t a matter of if the team would become a championship contender, it was simply a matter of when. Expectations were immediately through the roof (that sort of situation creates an entirely different kind of pressure).

With the Devils, expectations were pretty much at zero.

The Devils had become a bad team. The All-Stars that helped lead the team to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final were gone. It was an older roster that had no impact players, no young building blocks, and nothing to really build around. It was going to take a significant overhaul to get things back on track.

An overhaul is exactly what has happened.

After trading Adam Henrique to the Anaheim Ducks this past week for defenseman Sami Vatanen, the only players that remain on the Devils roster today from the 2014-15 season (the year before Shero arrived) are Travis Zajac, Andy Greene, Damon Severson, and goaltenders Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid.

That’s it.

The remainder of the roster has been completely rebuilt through some pretty significant trades that have had a significant impact on changing the short-and long-term outlook of the team.

Since being hired in New Jersey Shero has added Kyle Palmieri, Taylor Hall, Marcus Johansson and now Vatanen to the roster while only giving up Henrique, Adam Larsson, Joseph Blandisi, two second-round picks and two third-round picks.

That is a huge gain for the Devils from a production standpoint.

Palmieri has become a 25-goal, 50-point winger with the Devils the past two years and is scoring at that same pace this season when he has been healthy. Johansson, based on his track record in Washington, can offer similar production. Injuries have forced each of them to miss 12 games this season, making the Devils’ start even more impressive.

Hall is one of the NHL’s best left wingers and is currently on track for his best season in the NHL. Vatanen has had a brutal start to the season, but has a history of being a strong top-four defenseman that can provide some much-needed offense from the back end.

Those are significant additions, and while there is always a risk in giving up that many draft picks, second and third rounders tend to be lottery tickets, while all four players the Devils received in return are going to be around for quite some time.

Beyond those additions the most encouraging development for the Devils might be the fact they actually have some young players that are making a significant impact.

Three of their top-four scorers are currently age 23 or younger, including a pair of 19-year-olds.

They had a stroke of luck in the draft lottery this past season when they won the draft lottery and the No. 1 overall pick, landing them Nico Hischier (currently the team’s second-leading scorer).

Jesper Bratt, a sixth-round pick by the Devils in 2016, has also made an immediate impact while NCAA free agent defenseman Will Butcher has stepped right into the lineup and is the team’s top scoring blueliner.

Of the NHL’s top-10 rookie point producers, three of them are Devils all added to the organization by Shero in the past year.

Before Shero’s arrival in New Jersey the Devils had grown stale, even by Devils standards. They weren’t just the same old boring Devils that didn’t score goals, didn’t play an exciting brand of hockey, and didn’t have any star power, they also weren’t doing any of the winning that made all of that tolerable for their fans.

They desperately needed rebuilt and in a pretty drastic way.

A few big trades, a couple ping pong balls to bounce their way, and an almost completely new roster has put them back on the right track and in a pretty strong position to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Vegas’ expansion draft report card at quarter mark of season

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Devils forward Taylor Hall still appreciates everything Bob Boughner did for him at the junior level. (Sun-Sentinel)

• Canucks rookie Brock Boeser has been the talk of the NHL of late. He’s good enough to use a 90 flex stick. What does that mean? The Vancouver Province explains. (Vancouver Province)

• The Panthers scored 32 goals in the first 11 games of the season, but just 17 in the next 11. Production from the top line has dried up significantly. (Pantherparkway.com)

Jakub Vrana‘s rookie season stacks up pretty well against what other Capitals players like Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson (now with New Jersey) and Andrei Burakovsky did during their first year in the NHL. (Novacapsfans.com)

• The Sports Daily has changes to improve the NHL product on its 100th birthday. For example, they’d like to see the full two minutes served during a penalty and more three-on-three hockey during games. (Thesportsdaily.com)

• The Ducks are heading out on a crucial road trip, and they’ll have to do it with a roster that’s pretty banged up. (OC Register)

Jonathan Toews is still “Captain Serious,” but he’s also been willing to show a different side of himself over the last little while. (The Hockey News)

• A lot of Islanders fans wanted Matt Duchene to fill the hole they had at center on the second line. The team didn’t make the move, and that was clearly the right call now that they have Mathew Barzal playing there. (Nyislesblog.com)

• Now that we’re more than a quarter into Vegas’ first season, Sinbin.Vegas hands out their grades for each move the team made during the expansion draft. (Sinbin.Vegas)

• The Flames have been having a “could’ve been better, could’ve been worse” kind of season. That was also the theme of their recent road trip. (Flamesfrom80feet.ca)

• Jets Nation looks at the three different ways a 1A, 1B goaltending tandem can work for a team. With Connor Hellebuyck and Steve Mason, Winnipeg seems to be using a mentorship program. (JetsNation.ca)

• Paul Bissonnette’s transition from player to broadcaster has gone pretty well. (Sports Illustrated)

• The Rangers may be winning with some regularity, but it’s still not time to get excited about their winning ways. (Blueseatblogs.com)

• Charlie Lindgren was fantastic for the Canadiens while Carey Price was out with an injury, but they shouldn’t get used to having him around because free agency is approaching quickly. (Habseyesontheprize.com)

• Hockey fights cancer has a special meaning for Winnipeg Jets assistant coach Jamie Kompon and his wife, Tina. (NHL.com)

• Allaboutthejersey.com looks at where Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, Adam Henrique, Miles Wood, Blake Coleman, Damon Severson, Jesper Bratt and Brian Gibbons are shooting the puck from at even strength. (Allaboutthejersey.com)

• How much longer will Wayne Simmonds be a member of the Philadelphia Flyers? Their next stretch of games might provide us with the answer. (Philly.com)

Brayden Schenn has been “a perfect fit” with the St. Louis Blues this season. (Post-Dispatch)

• Jason Shaya, who is a broadcaster for Charlotte Checkers games, got the opportunity to serve as the team’s backup goalie recently. (Charlotte Observer)

• Team USA added two more players to their Olympic roster, as Haley Skarupa and Sidney Morin are now part of the team. (NBC Olympics)

• A hockey stick autographed by JFK and his brothers is now on display in a Cape Cod museum. (Associated Press)

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.

Butcher, Bratt (and Bernier) steal spotlight from Hischier in Devils’ opener

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As the top pick of the 2017 NHL Draft, Nico Hischier had plenty of eyes on him as the New Jersey Devils opened their season against the Colorado Avalanche.

Despite a strong showing in which he fired six shots on goal, Hischier wasn’t able to score his first goal or assist in the NHL.

Instead, the Devils other young players stole the spotlight … which isn’t so bad, when you consider that it resulted in a dominant 4-1 victory.

Avalanche fans hoping not to see much of Will Butcher were wise not to look at the box score, as Butcher became the first Devils player to ever record three points in a rookie debut. He notched those three assists through just 8:13 of ice time through the first two periods. The Devils got cheeky with a great tweet in that regard:

Harsh.

Jonathan Bernier kept a 4-1 game from getting out of hand with some absolutely spell-binding saves. You know a stop is special when there’s basically zero margin for error, as Damon Severson was able to elevate his attempt at a seemingly gaping net:

That was so good, it almost made people forget about Bernier goofing about Nelson Mandela.

Jesper Bratt was the other young Devils player to make an impression, scoring a goal and an assist himself. And yes, there were a slew of bad/great/bad-great brat-related puns.

Hischier might not have scored, but he looked great. He surely earned some brownie points with Devils fans for stepping in when Erik Johnson landed a knee-to-knee hit on Kyle Palmieri:

It remains to be seen if Palmieri misses serious time, while Drew Stafford was also hurt during the game. Beyond the Avalanche being, um, flawed, those issues put a slight damper on what must have been an exhilarating afternoon for Devils fans.

So much happened. And much of it looked very, very good for this fascinating rebuild.