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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.

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.

The Arizona Coyotes should not be this bad

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On Tuesday night the Arizona Coyotes will play their 20th game of the season when they take on the Winnipeg Jets, winners of five of their past seven games.

The Coyotes will enter the game with just two wins on the season.

None of those wins have come in regulation, only defeating the Philadelphia Flyers in overtime back on October 30 and the Carolina Hurricanes in a shootout on November 4.

In total, they have collected just seven out of a possible 38 points.

This is not only the worst start in the NHL this season (they are five points behind the second worst team at the moment, a Florida Panthers team that has played in three fewer games than the Coyotes) it is the worst start any team has had in the NHL over the past 10 years.

Only one other team during that stretch has failed to reach at least the 10-point mark through its first 19 games, the 2013-14 Buffalo Sabres, also with seven. That was one of the Sabres teams that was going through the scorched earth rebuild that saw the team get torn down to its most basic foundation in the front office’s efforts to tank for draft position.

Even that Sabres team won three of its first 19 games and one in regulation.

The Coyotes are still a team going through a rebuild and with an extremely young roster. They have seven players that have appeared in at least seven games (including six that have appeared in at least 14 games) that are age 22 or younger. A roster that young is almost certain to experience a lot of growing pains and the playoffs were probably not a realistic goal at the start of this season anyway.

It still should not be this bad because there is some real talent on this roster.

Right now they have the leading front-runner for the NHL’s rookie of the year in Clayton Keller, currently one of the top-five goal-scorers in the NHL. They added a number of established veterans (good ones!) this summer including Derek Stepan (a true top-six center), Niklas Hjalmarsson (a strong defensive defenseman), Antti Raanta and Jason Demers. They have a top-tier defenseman in Oliver Ekman-Larsson. There was already a respectable core of young players in Max Domi, Christian Dvorak and Tobias Rieder in place.

It is not a totally hopeless situation on paper.

So what is happening here, and why are they off to such a terrible start?

For one, goaltending has been a pretty significant issue due to an injury to Raanta and a revolving door of backups behind him.

Louis Domingue (traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday), Adin Hill, and Scott Wedgewood are a combined 1-10-1 this season and as a trio have managed just an .876 save percentage.

No team has a chance to win with that level of goaltending.

The Coyotes scored at least three goals (including two games with four goals) in five of those 10 regulation losses that the Domingue, Hill, Wedgewood trio has started.

Three or four goals in regulation is usually enough a hockey game, or at least get a point. Teams that score either three or four goals in a game this season have a points percentage of .646. A team with a .646 points percentage over an 82-game season would be a 106 point team in the standings.

When the Coyotes score three or four goals in a game this season (including the eight games started by Raanta)?

They are only at .142 in those games.

With even slightly better goaltending in those games there might have been a couple of extra wins right there. Even just plain bad goaltending would have probably made a difference as a .900 save percentage from those goalies would have sliced nine to 10 goals off of their goals against total for the season.

There is also an element of some bad shooting luck from some of their top forwards, including Stepan.

Prior to this season Stepan has been a remarkably consistent point producer that has always been a lock for at least 55 points and around 20 goals.

Four of the Coyotes’ top-six forwards in terms of shots on goal (Stepan, Domi, Dvorak, Brad Richardson, and Jordan Martinook) currently own a shooting percentage under 5 percent. As a group that quintet  has scored on just six of their 187 shots on goal.

That is a shooting percentage of just 3.2 percent from a group of, mostly, their top forwards.

Prior to this season that group had a career shooting percentage of 9.9 percent.

If they were shooting at their normal career averages on the same number of shots that would be an additional 12 goals from that group alone.

Put all of that together with a young, inexperienced team that still has some holes to fill and you have the worst start in the NHL in more than a decade.

So what are the Coyotes at this point?

They are a rebuilding team that has been hurt by two big injuries to key veterans (Raanta, Hjalmarsson), crushed by bad goaltending, and has had a few of  itstop players start the year on a cold streak shooting.

They should not be an historically bad team like their early season record would seem to indicate. They also are not because there is a chance a lot of these early trends from a percentage perspective reverse.

When that happens the results should start to improve too.

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.

Coyotes trade Domingue to Lightning for McGinn, Leighton

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GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) The Arizona Coyotes have traded goalie Louis Domingue to the Tampa Bay Lightning for forward Tye McGinn and goalie Michael Leighton.

The trade, announced on Tuesday, ends Domingue’s mixed tenure with the Coyotes.

Domingue played well at times as Mike Smtih’s backup last season, but struggled this season when new No. 1 goalie Antti Raanta suffered a pair of lower-body injuries. Domingue went 0-6 with a 4.33 goals-against average before Arizona acquired Scott Wedgewood in a trade with New Jersey.

McGinn has nine goals and eight assists in 89 career NHL games with three teams, including Arizona in 2014-15.

Leighton has appeared in 110 NHL games with four teams, going 37-43-14 with a 2.98 goals-against average.

Hjalmarsson off to difficult start with Coyotes — and now he’s hurt

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The good news for the Arizona Coyotes: Clayton Keller has been named the NHL’s Rookie of the Month.

Selected seventh overall in the 2016 NHL Draft, Keller has been the only bright spot so far on a Coyotes team that finished the month of October with a single win in 13 games. Halloween is over but the latter point is a frightening factoid for the young team, which was active during the offseason in an effort to upgrade at numerous key positions heading into the 2017-18 campaign.

The bad news is that another one of those key acquisitions, 30-year-old defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, is now dealing with an injury and there doesn’t seem to be a specific timeline for when he may return to the lineup.

“He got banged up pretty good,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet told Arizona Sports yesterday. “I don’t know how long he’ll be out. It’s a big loss for us.”

The Coyotes have been without goalie Antti Raanta since his last game on Oct. 12, and he’s now listed on injured reserve, meaning Arizona is currently leaning on newly acquired Scott Wedgewood and recently recalled Hunter Miska for the goaltending responsibilities, after Louis Domingue cleared waivers.

For the Coyotes, turning around their early season struggles certainly won’t be easy, especially now that they’re dealing with injuries in net and on the back end.

The transition to Arizona hasn’t been an easy one for Hjalmarsson, who previously spent 10 seasons on the back end with the Chicago Blackhawks during their rise to prominence. Through 12 games with the Coyotes, he has three assists, although in fairness he was never an overwhelming offensive dynamo in Chicago. But prior to this latest injury, he was posting a 44 per cent Corsi For rating at even strength, according to Corsica, and the analytics don’t paint a pretty picture.

From The Athletic:

It’s safe to say Chicago misses Hjalmarsson. Funny thing about that, I’m not so sure it would be all that different with him in the fold. As nightmarish as Chicago’s defenders have started, Hjalmarsson’s early 2017-18 returns have been even worse.

Among defenders that have played seven or more games (ie. regular lineup fixtures) Hjalmarsson’s average Game Score is the fifth worst mark in the entire league at -0.07 per game. Game Score works on the same scale as points per game so to have a negative score basically implies you’re doing less than nothing.

Just more frustrating news for the Coyotes, who host the Sabres on Thursday and the Hurricanes on Saturday before a difficult five-game stretch that will include back-to-back games on the road against the Capitals and Penguins.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.