First of all, if you want a REAL setup of the series, you should be looking to John’s excellent preview from Monday. I’m merely going to fill in a few of the gaps that I’m personally interested in and will be watching for.
One thing that interests me heading into series like this though is how the players performed against one another earlier in the year. We’ve already played against this team 3 times, some of that data has been recent as well. Any data about the season series for this piece was pulled from Offside Review. They have a great utility that bins results by game rather than season, this allowed me to pull and compile stats from only the 3 games when these teams played one another.
#1 Nico Hischier’s Dominance
Below is the primary points scored by player in the season series .
Nico Hicher was probably the first star of the season series on either team. He led the series with 4 primary points (2 goals, 2 primary assists). In the first game, he had 1 goal in 15 minutes of play. Then in Tampa, he notched 2 primary assists (both on Drew Stafford goals) in 18 minutes. In the third game, he played over 19 minutes and scored. From Tampa’s perspective, this guy has been a factor, every single time they’ve played him. He also led either team in expected goals with 2.14. The next closest player was Brayden Point at 1.9 and Taylor Hall only had 0.63 — good for 5th on NJ. For all that Taylor Hall has been the driving force of the Devils’ season en route to a strong Hart Trophy candidacy, in this particular season series, Hischier was the MVP.
Nico is already extremely impressive as has been covered on this blog by both myself and John. This is going to be a pivotal moment in his career — his first postseason. It’s already a captivating plotline to follow in itself, but given his great performance against the best team in the conference during the regular season, it’s unmissable. It will be fascinating to see if he can continue to give Tampa Bay problems or if Jon Cooper can find a way to contain him. Which brings me to point #2
#2 Hynes vs. Cooper: The Matchups
This not only Nico’s first NHL postseason, it’s Hynes’s too. He did make the AHL postseason in all 5 seasons he coached, making the conference finals twice, but the NHL is obviously a different monster. Above are images from Dr. Micah McCurdy’s Hockeyviz on what the matchups were in each of the 3 games. In the first game, it looks like Santini/Greene and Johansson/Henrique/Palmieri drew the assignment to contain the Kucherov-Stamkos line, While Hall-Hischier-Stafford was treated with a by-committee approach from Cooper.
Then, in Tampa, Cooper blanketed the Hall-Hischier-Bratt line with Point-Kucherov and Hedman-Stralman. That matchup really broke pretty hard in favor of the Lightning. When Nico was on the ice against Brayden Point, Tampa outshot the Devils 15-5. What’s fascinating about the matchup is, despite that differential, the Devils outscored the Lightning 2-0 in that time (Nico’s two assists). If Hischier - Point is a common on-ice pairing in this series, that shot ratio cannot continue, because the goals will eventually start breaking there way as well.
By the time we returned to NJ for the final reprisal, John Hynes had gotten himself a “shutdown line” of Coleman-Zajac-Noesen. That line, along with top pairing Greene-Vatanen, were basically the only faces that Kucherov, Stamkos, and Miller saw all night. That top line was completely neutralized — The Devils outshot the Lightning 13-10 when the Zajac line was going up against the Stamkos-Kucherov Line. If you’re going to have an all-star top line get outshot by the other teams 3rd line, it’s gonna be a tough game. Interestingly Point still got matched up with Hischier, and still made life difficult for that top line (outshot 3-8).
In Hynes first NHL playoff series, watching how he plays the matchups, particularly when we come back to New Jersey and he gets last change, is a storyline to watch. He’s been out-dueled by other coaches in the matchup department in the past and he can’t afford to make lineup mistakes because this roster doesn’t have the talent to overcome them.
#3 The “Bottom Four” Defenders
We know about the all-star defenders on Tampa, Norris-contender Victor Hedman, and former-Ranger Ryan McDonaugh. We know we will see plenty of them, as well as plenty of Andy Greene-Sami Vatanen. However, more than half the game will be played by other people for us. The performance of “bottom 4 defenders” on each squad could be the defining aspect of this series.
Will Butcher put up 2 points against the Lightning this season and had the best xGF% of any regular player. I wrote a piece about how he is underutilized and I’ve recently received more evidence of this. Woodguy graciously provided me with data from OilersNerdAlert on situational statistics based on deployment. In almost 200 minutes against elite competition, Butcher has been given basically 50/50 zone starts, been outscored by 1 goal, and no on who has played more minutes has a higher dff% (Dangerous Fenwick). Vantnen’s been outscored by 6 goals and has a DFF% almost 5 full points lower. If the Devils don’t want to get cratered in possession/expected goals, taking the reins off Butcher is a key.
On the Lightning side of the puck. Sergachev and Stralman are going to cause problems because they offer defensive depth that the Devils simply cannot match. Sergachev is there Butcher — he put up 4 points against us in the 3 games we played and lead all defenders on either team in the series with a 63% Corsi. Similarly, Stralman led all defenders that played in all 3 games in xGF%. If the Devils think that accounting for McDonaugh and Hedman will be sufficient, they’ve got another thing coming. On the flip side, Coburn was likely the worst player on either side during this series — he had no points, was outscored 0-2, and had an expected goal ratio of 27% (lowest among defender in the series). If the Devils can pick on him and Girardi, who, despite being much improved, is still a subpar defender, then they may be able to counteract the losses they will likely incur in other matchups.
In short, the Devils don’t have the top-end D talent that Tampa does and Tampa splits Hedman and McDonaugh up so we need an answer. Running Vatanen into the ground (ice?) is not that answer. Someone is going to need to step up, and Hynes is going to need to give them that opportunity.
Cole Anderson was kind enough to provide me with this graph of the cumulative expected goals saved over the course of the season for the main goalies in this matchup. Kinkaid comes in one of the hottest goalies in the league, and Vasilevskiy, despite being perceived as a shoe-in for the Vezina early in the year, has admitted to fatigue setting in and it’s showed. By the end of the year, the difference between these two goalies was rapidly decreasing. Kinkaid has a shot at saving the series for us — we’ve seen plenty of hot goalies win series for teams that didn’t deserve it.
Furthermore, I’m assuming here that Kinkaid starts all/most games. I personally don’t know what it would take for me to trust Cory Schneider in net at this point. In their last 12 starts:
Cory Schneider: 0-10-2 Record, 0.863 SV%, 4.04 GAA
Keith Kinkaid: 10-1-1 Record, 0.934 SV%, 2.24 GAA
Some decisions are hard. This is not. Kinkaid’s the goalie barring complete and utter catastrophe, and if he keeps up his game, he could win us the series.
Here are some other things I’ll be paying attention to.
- Hynes lineup decisions - This is distinct from the matchups element above, which I view as more Hynes vs Cooper. This is just on Hynes decisions on who to even put in the lineup in the first place. In particular, if the Devils lose and Damon Severson doesn’t play a minute, you’ll likely get piece from me exclusively about that decision.
- Brian Boyle - Boyle returns to the arena that gave him a massive ovation on all-star weekend, against a team for whom he played 42 playoff games in two years from 2014-2016 , as the enemy. While his performance lately has been lackluster (I even called to sit him), this is EXACTLY the reason he’s here. I’m looking for him to set the tone for the young guys.
- The battle of the young guns - Yanni Gourde and Nico Hischier are two of the best rookie forwards in the league, and Mikhail Sergachev and Will Butcher are two of the best rookie defenders in the league. Everything we get this postseason is gravy, the future is what matters, and I’m keeping score on the performance of these 4 in this series.
What interests you guys about this series? What are you most interested in? Most concerned about? Most excited to watch?
Thanks as always for reading, and leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
#LGD #NJDvsEverybody #WeWantTheCup #NowWeRise