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New Jersey Devils vs. Tampa Bay Lightning: The 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs Series Preview

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On Thursday, the New Jersey Devils will take on the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. This massive post is a preview of the series, looking at each team’s team stats, player stats, situational stats, and so much more.

Tampa Bay Lightning v New Jersey Devils
Point! Butcher! The Stanley Cup Playoffs! A series preview is in this post.
Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

For the first time since 2012, the New Jersey Devils are entering the postseason. They will face the Eastern Conference leaders in the first round: The Tampa Bay Lightning. This is your extensive series preview.

The Games, The Times & The Broadcast Information

Game 1: Thursday, April 12, New Jersey Devils at Tampa Bay Lightning, 7 PM ET

National TV - NHL-Network, Sportsnet, TVAS

Local TV - Fox Sports - Sun for TB, MSG+ for NJ

Game 2: Saturday, April 14, New Jersey Devils at Tampa Bay Lightning, 3 PM ET

National TV - NBC, CNBC, SN 360, TVAS

Game 3: Monday, April 16, New Jersey Devils vs. Tampa Bay Lightning, 7:30 PM ET

National TV - CNBC, SN, TVAS

Local TV - Fox Sports - Florida for TB, MSG+ for NJ

Game 4: Wednesday, April 18, New Jersey Devils vs. Tampa Bay Lightning, 7:30 PM ET

National TV - Golf Channel, SN, TVAS

Local TV - Fox Sports - Sun for TB, MSG+ for NJ

Game 5 (if necessary): Saturday, April 21, New Jersey Devils at Tampa Bay Lightning, Time & Broadcast TBD

Game 6 (if necessary): Monday, April 23, New Jersey Devils vs. Tampa Bay Lightning, Time & Broadcast TBD

Game 7 (if necessary): Wednesday, April 25, New Jersey Devils at Tampa Bay Lightning, Time & Broadcast TBD

The Media

For New Jersey, there are a few beat reporters to follow. Chris Ryan (@ChrisRyan_NJ) is the beat reporter at NJ.com; Abbey Mastracco (@AbbeyMastracco) is now the Devils’ beat reporter for the North Jersey Record; and Leo Scaglione Jr. (@LeoScaglioneJr) covers the Devils and Isles for the NY Hockey Journal. For The Athletic, Corey Masisak (@cmasisak22) covers the Devils.

The broadcasters for MSG and the One Jersey Network are also active on Twitter for any team related news. They are Deb Placey (@DebPlacey); Matt Loughlin (@MattLoug), and Steve Cangelosi (@CangyManMSG).

The Devils themselves are active in pushing out roster news and injury updates as well as in-game commentary. The main person for that is Amanda Stein (@AmandaCStein).

I am gloriously not a beat reporter or works for the team; I and the other writers keep it 100 at All About the Jersey.

For Tampa Bay, the team’s official website is well updated by Dave Mishkin, Bryan Burns (@BBurnsNHL), and Jacob Lynn.

Longtime beat reporter for the Tampa Bay Tribune, Erik Erlendsson (@erik_erlendsson) started his own site: Lightning Insider. It appears to be a pay site. For a freer site, the Tampa Bay Times does have their own Lightning section which is up to date. Joe Smith used to be the featured guy there, but he is now a member of The Athletic.

If you want a site like this one, well, too bad. There’s only one All About the Jersey. If you want a Tampa Bay-based blog on this network, then Raw Charge. It’s loaded with content, podcasts, and more.

The Executive Summary

The New Jersey Devils are underdogs to the Tampa Bay Lightning. More than just by record alone, the Lightning have been a superior 5-on-5 team and power play team both throughout this season and in the three games against the Devils. For New Jersey get wins against Tampa Bay, they’ll need to emulate what they did in those three games: get great goaltending and keep up with Tampa Bay’s scoring. The good news is that it is possible; the Devils won all three of those games. The bad news is that it will likely be an uphill climb unless the Devils can come away from Florida with one or, ideally, two wins; other players not named Hall step up on offense; Kinkaid plays great; and the Devils don’t try to out-perform in what Tampa Bay already does best. It’s a lot to ask and hope for, but it isn’t impossible.

The Album for this Series Preview

This is a long post. One song will not do. Since it is a game against a Florida-based team, I must go with the legendary Death. I’m going to link you to the entire 1995 classic album, Symbolic.

The Records

New Jersey finished the 2017-18 season with a 44-29-9 record. They finished in the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.

Tampa Bay finished the 2017-18 season with a 54-23-5 record. They finished first in the Eastern Conference and the Atlantic Division.

Home records: Devils went 23-14-4. Their 50 points earned tied them for 16th most in the NHL. Tampa Bay went 29-10-2. Their 60 points earned tied them for 5th most in the NHL.

Road records: Devils went 21-15-5. Their 47 points earned tied them for 8th most in the NHL. Tampa Bay went 25-13-3. Their 53 points earned was the 2nd most in the NHL.

Tampa Bay have no issues getting results on the road and took care of plenty of business at home. Not that the Devils were bad, but they could have been better at the Rock.

The Season Series

The Devils did play Tampa Bay three times and beat them three times. Here’s a list of all three results with links to the AAtJ recap of each game.

With the help of Natural Stat Trick’s game stat pages and NHL.com’s event summaries (both specifically linked in each recap), I’ve put together this snapshot summary of all three games.

Snapshot summary of 2017-18 Devils-Tampa Bay games
Data from Natural Stat Trick game stat pages & NHL.com Event Summaries of each respective game

The long and short of it is that the Devils were really only hanging with the Lightning in that first game way back in October. Even then the hanging was in 5-on-5 play. Tampa Bay were attacking much more and received more power play opportunities. While the Devils put up more PPGs on October 17, the Devils conceded more power play shots, attempts, and goals in the other two games while converting none of their own opportunities. That exacerbated the 5-on-5 dominance Tampa Bay had in the second game of the season series. The 5-on-5 play was not as bad on March 24, but the game was still very much on a knife’s edge. The Devils mainly won the games in February and March on the strength of goaltenders Eddie Lack and Keith Kinkaid playing fantastic in net. Even with four goals conceded, Cory Schneider had a lot to deal with in his match-up against the Bolts in October too (37 shots against, 73 attempts, plus a power play against in 3-on-3 OT).

Looking at these stats in conjunction with what I wrote then, the Devils achieved very good results with less than optimal processes. Given how deep and talented Tampa Bay are this season and what they have done to the entire NHL in 2017-18, it is not that much of a surprise that the Devils were out-shot and out-attempted in total in each game. It does not necessarily bode well in a playoff series, though.

The Injury Situation

Before getting into the stats, let’s touch on the injury situation for each team - which is rather light.

The only player on the Devils’ injured list was Marcus Johansson. Johansson has been out with a concussion since Brad Marchand elbowed him in the head on January 23. Recently, he has been taking part of practices and was removed from injured reserve. It’s entirely possible he could make his return to the team in this postseason. Concussions are difficult to deal with, so it is not a guarantee by any means. The Devils have used plenty of forwards and have mixed and matched units in response to various injuries throughout the season. It is not a question of what the Devils will do without him. The bigger question is: How would he fit in if he does return?

As for the Lightning, Steven Stamkos was held out of the last couple games of the season with an undisclosed lower-body injury. However, he returned and participated in a full practice on Monday. Yet, according to this post at TBO.com by Mike Sherman, Stamkos has admitted that he’ll never be 100% but he hopes to play in Game 1. I would not bet against anyone playing through some kind of injury in the postseason. The only other injured Bolt is Adam Erne, who has been out indefinitely with a “lower body injury” since March 29 per Erlendsson. Erne is a depth forward, so it is not a massive loss to the Tampa Bay roster.

The Big Names that All Fans Already/Should Know

For New Jersey, the big name is Taylor Hall. He is a Superstar. He finished sixth in the NHL in scoring with 93 points; a whopping forty-one more points than the second-place scorer on the team. Hall amassed a 26-game point-streak from the start of January 2018 through to mid-March. After a couple of games, he put up a nine-game point-streak until his last appearance of the season. Hall is receiving legitimate buzz for the Hart Trophy for being such a dominant offensive force that was heads and shoulders above the Devils. While the Devils have some notable players, the biggest of them all wears #9: Taylor Hall. He is certainly worth more than, say, Adam Larsson.

For Tampa Bay, there are three big names: Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Victor Hedman. Hedman is the stud defenseman who has led Tampa Bay’s blueline for years. He’s massive, he’s productive, and he’s quite good at whatever he does. He’s the sort of defenseman that if you’re able to have on your team, then you do what you can to keep him and build something good around him.

Stamkos was the #1 pick in 2008 and he has been a scoring machine ever since. Since his debut in 2008-09, Stamkos has put up 348 goals and 668 points in 664 games. Here’s the list of all of the players who have scored more goals than Stamkos in that same timespan: Alex Ovechkin. That’s it. Stamkos is arguably the most frightening shooter outside of Ovechkin in the Eastern Conference, if not the whole NHL.

Kucherov has emerged to become the main producer on an offensively-stacked Tampa Bay squad. Kucherov has put up 65, 66, 85, and 100 points in the last four seasons. That 100 is from this season, where he finished third in the entire NHL in scoring with 39 goals and 61 assists which goes well with 279 shots on net. The winger just keeps getting onto the scoresheet and he has formed a marvelous partnership with Stamkos. If you see #86 get free, then get worried because he can do a lot of damage either on his own or by helping a teammate (like Stamkos) bring the pain.

5-on-5 Team Stats

Speaking of pain, Tampa Bay caused a whole lot of it as a team in 5-on-5 play. 5-on-5 hockey is the most common situation in hockey. After 82 games, you get a sense of who is and is not good at it. Tampa Bay is. New Jersey, well, read these numbers.

By the way, the following data is from Natural Stat Trick. Numbers in green rate in the top ten in the NHL. Numbers in red are for stats rated 22nd or below, which is the bottom ten. Definitions to be used throughout this post are here; assume that chances mean scoring chances (the homeplate area from the crease as wide as the faceoff dots up to the top of the circles).

5-on-5 Stats for 2017-18 for the Devils and Tampa Bay
Data from Natural Stat Trick

In every single stat, Tampa Bay has out-done the Devils in 5-on-5 play with the lone exception of shots against per 60 minutes. All that means is that if Tampa Bay is vulnerable to anything, it’s giving up shots. Still, they’re among the top ten in the league in preventing attempts, high-danger scoring chances (slot and crease), and stopping those shots. More importantly, they’re among the best in terms of creating shots, shooting attempts, scoring chances, high-danger chances, and shooting percentage. As a result, they led the league in 5-on-5 goals.

In comparison, the Devils’ struggles look more real. The only larger area they’re close to them in is high-danger chances and in shot-differential. The former is nice but that doesn’t seem like much given how much they allow scoring chances in general. Allowing shots from the high slot or inside the circles is still not ideal even if they’re not exactly in the slot. The latter is more interesting. It falls in line with the Devils’ ways to go for blocks on defense and collapsing to force shots to be more challenging to get through. The Devils have been able to get plenty of their own attempts through to make that closer to even. That the Lightning is higher in CF% but just above SF% suggests they can tilt the ice but not always get the puck on target. Of course, with the league’s best team shooting percentage, those pucks on target have a tendency of getting in.

I would recommend checking out the heat maps of recent games from both teams by Natural Stat Trick on Twitter. As noted by the author, the Devils and Lightning are similar when it comes to attempts in those high-danger areas but the Devils don’t get the mid-range shots that the Lightning does. That’s a big difference and another edge Tampa Bay has over the Devils in 5-on-5 play.

Recall the three games that the Devils played against Tampa Bay. The Lightning had the edge in 5-on-5 situations in the second and third games (the first had a slight Devils edge). Given what they have done all season, the Lightning can be reasonably expected to have an edge over the Devils again.

The Forwards in 5-on-5 Play

Since 5-on-5 play is the most common in hockey, let’s take a closer look at how the individual players performed on the ice and their production. All numbers here are from Natural Stat Trick with a minimum of 150 minutes played.

Between Left Wing Lock and Achariya’s post at Raw Charge about Tampa Bay’s recent game against Boston, I also took a guess at the expected roles for each player on Tampa Bay. I used what I knew of the Devils for theirs. Assume that the lines may change for the actual playoff games, but they should give you an idea of who could be with who.

I also removed players who are not on each team right now. So if you’re expecting an Adam Henrique, Vladislav Namestnikov, or J.T. Brown mention, then this is it.

New Jersey 5-on-5 On-Ice Stats

Devils forwards 5-on-5 on-ice stats
Data from Natural Stat Trick

As the Devils did not finish above 50% CF% as a team, it’s not a surpirse that only three forwards broke even. It is a surprise that they’re all left wingers: grinding winger Stefan Noesen, Superstar Taylor Hall, and the speedy Miles Wood (!). They all play on separate units. Noesen and Wood do not receive regular special teams minutes either. Still, when they are on the ice, the play tends to go in the right way so they’re doing something right. This is further justified with positive SF% and SCF% (scoring chance for) percentages. That Hall is doing this while facing tough competition and playing a lot furthers the notion that he’s the big man up front.

There are some Devils in the 49 percentile that are worth noting. Rookie sensation Nico Hischier nearly broke even in attempts and leads the team with a 35.6 SF/60 rate. When Nico is on the ice, shots are happening (and those minutes are usually with Hall). That Brian Boyle is close by speaks to the notion that he has been an effective fourth liner. Blake Coleman is one of the Devils’ better defensive forwards and one of their most dangerous penalty killers. He’s usually with Noesen in 5-on-5 play. Not much in the way of 5-on-5 offense, but he’s not getting killed either. Kyle Palmieri, who’s been moved about but ended up with Hall and Hischier more often than not, makes the cut even though his low-ish 47.6% SCF% suggests that things could be better in terms of making chances happen.

As you go down the list, you’ll notice the Devils have forwards who are often in their own end more than in the Devils’ end. Patrick Maroon has been helpful and productive, but not so much in terms of generating offense. Michael Grabner isn’t productive and is also not generating much offense. Travis Zajac has been gifted tough match-ups and, well, he does not always win them. He has been paired with Noesen and Coleman in recent weeks, so that could help turn the tide. Jesper Bratt’s numbers show why he’s been more of a scratch in recent weeks and could be an extra forward going into Game 1 - assuming Marcus Johansson cannot play. Another potential extra could be Brian Gibbons, who ends up just ahead of Jimmy Hayes in most of these offensive on-ice rate stats and percentages.

New Jersey 5-on-5 Production

It’s not just about what happens on the ice when the players are out there. Individual production matters, from points to shots on goal (SOG), attempts, and scoring chances.

Devils forwards 5-on-5 production stats
Devils forwards 5-on-5 production stats
Data from Natural Stat Trick

There’s Taylor Hall, there’s Nico Hischier, and then there is the rest. Between injuries, puck luck, and circumstances, Wood, Noesen, Coleman, and Gibbons all ended up with 20 points in 5-on-5 play. Wood did more than I realized, which is saying something given that he averages just over eleven minutes in 5-on-5 play. Noesen and Coleman even broke 120 shots and 180 attempts. Say what you want about their offensive talent, but they are trying.

Looking at this table does make me wish Palmieri was healthy for the whole season to see how he’d stack up. He’s very much a shooter and playing with Hall and Hischier has been big for him. He missed a big chunk of 2017 and did not immediately play with them. He is expected to now as the first line with him has been better than other options (e.g. Bratt, a few games of Drew Stafford in October). It also makes me wish Bratt didn’t hit a rookie wall so hard because he really was quite productive in the 2017 portion of this season. Still, the offense in 5-on-5 is largely carried and created by Hall and Hischier. For the Devils to come out ahead in this series, other players will have to step up with shots, chances, assists, and goals.

Tampa Bay 5-on-5 On-Ice Stats

So that’s the Devils. Here’s what the forward group of one of the best teams in hockey look like.

Tampa Bay forwards 5-on-5 on-ice stats
Data from Natural Stat Trick

Only the speedy Tyler Johnson and beefy Cedric Paquette finished the season below 50% CF%. That’s a top-six winger, who has been and will be helped out greatly by the also-talented and also-quick Yanni Gourde and Brayden Point. Paquette is a fourth liner who has some quality wingers and veteran presence in Chris Kunitz and Ryan Callahan. It’s astounding that the Devils’ leader in CF/60, Hall, would be surpassed by six out of fourteen Lightning forwards here. Hischier’s high SF/60 does not even touch the 19 games of J.T. Miller’s crazy-good 37.28 SF/60 rate. By the way, Miller has been with Kucherov and Stamkos just in case you wanted to know who could be providing those shots. Nobody outside of Paquette and potential extras in Adam Erne and Cory Conacher are really dragging in offense. A first line of Miller, Kucherov, and Stamkos have been creating a lot. A second line of Gourde, Point, and Johnson have been filled with fly-bys and tilting of the ice. A third line of the seemingly-very-effective Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, and call-up sensation Anthony Cirelli only deepens a strong group of forwards. If you’re wondering what these all numbers mean put together, then it’s this: the Lightning forwards are really, really, really good in 5-on-5 play.

Tampa Bay 5-on-5 Production

As such, they’re also very productive. Remember, this is the team that led the whole NHL in 5-on-5 goals.

Tampa Bay forwards 5-on-5 production
Data from Natural Stat Trick

Recall that Hall and Hischier were the only Devils with more than 30 points in 5-on-5 play. The Lightning have six, with veteran fourth-liner Chris Kunitz finishing seventh. The only top-six forward not in the top-six in this group by production is J.T. Miller and that’s only because he played all of 19 games with the team. Even then, 12 points in 19 games is nothing to ignore. As a whole, the Lightning stand out above the Devils by most players from a production standpoint.

At the top of this table, you can see why Kucherov and Stamkos are the most dangerous men on the Lightning. Kucherov alone has over 300 shooting attempts and nearly has 200 chances of his own. He has 27 goals in 5-on-5 play, which is ridiculously good. Stamkos, who has a great shot of his own, has more primary assists than anyone else on Tampa Bay and New Jersey. Beyond those two, Point stands out. He actually did have over 200 individual scoring chances on top of scoring at least twenty 5-on-5 goals and finishing second on the team in 5-on-5 shots on goal. To say he provides secondary scoring does not seem accurate. It’s more or less primary scoring not on the first line. Beware of Point and his unit as much as you will beware of Kucherov-Stamkos line.

The Defensemen in 5-on-5 Play

Of course, it’s not always about offense. I did the same thing for the forwards and applied it to the defensemen. The only exception is that I used against rate stats (shots against, chances against, etc.) and a minimum of 200 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time. All data here is from Natural Stat Trick.

New Jersey Defensemen 5-on-5 On-Ice Stats

Devils defensemen 5-on-5 on-ice stats
Data from Natural Stat Trick

Eight Devils qualified and all eight are with New Jersey. Mirco Mueller played ahead of Damon Severson in the final few games of the season. These stats show that really should not be the case - even if Mueller has a really good SCA/60 rate and SCF% percentage. Severson may be prone to turnovers, but so is John Moore who has been kept in the lineup regardless. I suppose that’s also because the team doesn’t have any extra left-sided defensemen. The most impressive on-ice numbers come from the third pairing of Will Butcher and Ben Lovejoy. Lovejoy has bounced back from a bad 2016-17 season in a more limited role where he has thrived. Butcher has been eased into 5-on-5 play and arguably is deserving of more ice time.

In any case, Sami Vatanen effectively became the #1 defenseman on this team and his numbers are not quite so hot in the run of play. While the shot differential is even when he’s on the ice, the chances and attempts went against the Devils. Andy Greene is even lower, but he does get stuck in his own end quite a bit on zone starts and he was the partner for most of Steve Santini’s 36 games. For this playoff series, Greene-Vatanen is very likely as Santini remains as an extra. As it’ll start on the road, don’t be surprised if the Moore pairing - regardless of he’s with Severson or Mueller - gets a whole lot of shifts against Tampa Bay’s best. They’ve been prone to allowing shots, attempts, and chances all season long. I’d like to write that they could step up, but 70+ games of this has caused me to not even hope for that.

New Jersey Defensemen 5-on-5 Production

Devils defensemen 5-on-5 production
Data from Natural Stat Trick

Another mark in the “Don’t be stupid, play Severson” argument is that he’s been quite productive in 5-on-5 play. He has as many points as Butcher while putting up way more goals than the other defensemen. Only John Moore, who loves to pinch even when he shouldn’t, has more shots and attempts than him. The Moore-Severson pairing has allowed a lot but they have provided some offense. That is not likely going to happen with Moore-Mueller, even if Mueller had a sweet pass for a shorthanded goal last week. As for the other pairings, Butcher could stand to get more shots on net. Being out-shot by Lovejoy is a bit weird given the skillsets involved. But at least Butcher has been picking up helpers here and there. This makes him an asset when the Devils do get forward in 5-on-5 play, which does tend to happen when he’s on the ice.

Tampa Bay is not so hot at shot prevention, although they are quite good in terms of attempts and chances. Let’s see how their D stacks up.

Tampa Bay Defensemen 5-on-5 On-Ice Stats

Tampa Bay defensemen 5-on-5 on-ice stats
Tampa Bay defensemen 5-on-5 on-ice stats
Data from Natural Stat Trick

Mikhail Sergachev is like a souped-up, more specially used, younger version of Butcher. You’ll see him on the third pairing, on the power play, and often in offensive situations. The good news for Tampa Bay is that offense does tend to happen when he’s out there. This adds to a corps that has been boosted by the addition of Ryan McDonagh. While Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman will be the lead pairing, McDonagh has been very effective so far with the Lightning. His SA/60 and SCA/60 are the lowest on the team. His percentages in those categories are well above 50%, which means that he contributes to the team out-performing their opponents in those stats. In fact, the Lightning are doing that with Sergachev, McDonagh, Hedman, and Stralman.

The addition of McDonagh also meant that Braydon Coburn, who appeared to have received more difficult situations than other defensemen, to take a lesser role. This may work out for him like Lovejoy did for the Devils, but that won’t show up here as this includes the whole season and not just the last 14 games or so. The addition of McDonagh also pushed out Jake Dotchin, Andrej Sustr, and Slater Koekkoek to extra status. Tampa Bay has run with seven defensemen in the past, so don’t be too surprised if you see any of those three at some point in this series. The only curiousity is the inclusion of Dan Girardi. His reputation precedes him and the stats match that. When he’s on the ice, Tampa Bay has some of their worst numbers. At least Koekkoek was kept to 35 appearances. Per Left Wing Lock’s results of the last ten games, his most common partner at even strength has been McDonagh. So don’t be surprised if you see McDonagh lugging Girardi around this series. But with the play of Hedman, Stralman, and Sergachev, the Lightning have options in case that pairing does have issues on Girardi’s side.

Tampa Bay Defensemen 5-on-5 Production

Tampa Bay defensemen 5-on-5 production
Data from Natural Stat Trick

Hedman is, well, the man in 5-on-5 play. He’s not just a big defender who can go up against most match-ups and win them in the run of play. No, he’ll drop bombs from distance and elsewhere. By far he leads Tampa Bay in individual shooting attempts (346!), shots (153!), and goals (14!). The only defender within ten points of him is Sergachev. Like Butcher, he’s compiled plenty of assists with his third-pairing usage. Unlike Butcher, Sergachev has shot the puck way more often. The surprise here is that Stralman is so low from a production standpoint. He’s absolutely trying, nobody gets 222 shooting attempts in 5-on-5 play without significant effort and opportunity. It could be a case of bad puck luck with 2 goals out of 123 shots in 5-on-5 play. Still, to see him out-assisted by Coburn and Girardi is odd given how good Stralman is at reading plays and who he tends to play with at forward.

The Power Play

All together, the Lightning have more impressive numbers as a team and player-by-player in 5-on-5 play. However, in a short series, special teams can make a big difference. The power play could mitigate any gaps in the most common situation in hockey. Unfortunately, this is an aspect of the game where Tampa Bay has been wonderful in. Data is from NHL.com and Natural Stat Trick. Numbers in green are top-ten stats; numbers in red are bottom-ten stats.

Power Play Stats for 2017-18 for the Devils and Tampa Bay
Data from NHL.com and Natural Stat Trick

Surprising to me and others calling for Geoff Ward to be fired, the Devils’ power play has been productive. A success rate just inside of the top ten of the league counts as effective. Scoring 54 goals counts as effective. Getting 252 power play opportunities means that, no, the refs are not out to get the Devils. The team has conceded only six shorthanded goals, which is around the league median. The problem is that Tampa Bay is way better in each category for the power play.

Seriously, Tampa Bay has one of the most productive and threatening power plays in the league. They get opportunities. They generate attempts and scoring chances. Their shooting percentage was the second highest in the league in this past season. They rarely give up shorthanded goals. Most of all, they scored a lot of goals. The power play was an asset for the Lightning. Also recall that the power play was successful at least once in every one of the three games between these two teams. Given the amount of talent in 5-on-5 play, it’s not a surprise that their power play rates so well with the lone exceptions being their shooting and high-danger chance rates. But those exceptions do not matter much given where else they have been dominant.

Contrast that with the Devils. The underlying numbers remind me of my dislike of Ward’s approach to man advantages. The Devils’ rate of getting attempts, shots, and scoring chances all rate in the bottom ten in the NHL. Even with a good shooting percentage, getting shots or even shooting attempts has been a struggle at times. This does not even go into the harsh reality that one power play unit has functioned and the second unit really has not. You can see it in the individual power play production. (I kept this to a top five in power play points per Natural Stat Trick. Gourde has a star because Namestnikov is fifth but is no longer on the team)

Devils and Tampa Bay Top 5 Scorers in Power Play Situations in 2017-18
Data from Natural Stat Trick

The Devils’ first power play unit has had Hall, Palmieri, and Butcher as long as all three were available. They are heads and shoulders above the rest of the team when it comes to production. Palmieri’s shooting really stands out here as he has more shots and attempts than the other Devils. This also means that any team killing a penalty against the Devils needs to keep those three from doing much of any anything. That is usually accomplished by forcing them to make zone entries, which has been a struggle for seasons. In terms of the rest, before he fell off, Bratt was on the first power play unit and Vatanen has some contributions here and there.

As for Tampa Bay, like Hall and Palmieri, Kucherov and Stamkos are kings here. Stamkos has more goals, Kucherov has more assists, and they both have more shots on net individually than any Devil in power play situations. Good luck trying to stop these two. Especially with Victor Hedman directing things from the back end. He takes plenty of attempts himself, although the bulk comes from Tampa Bay’s top two forwards. Furthering the Butcher comparison, Sergachev ends up fourth on this list as he is usually the defenseman behind Hedman in the power play depth chart. The Devils will see plenty of him, although he may not shoot the puck so much - he can absolutely defer it. Gourde ends up on this list by default - and even he has 7 PPG. Even if the Devils can quell Kucherov and Stamkos, the other forwards can step up. If they can score in 5-on-5 play, surely they can in 5-on-4, 4-on-3, or 5-on-3 situations.

The Penalty Kill

So the power play is another area where Tampa Bay has a clear advantage. The other side of special teams is more in New Jersey’s realm. Data is from NHL.com and Natural Stat Trick. Numbers in green are top-ten stats; numbers in red are bottom-ten stats.

Penalty Kill Stats for 2017-18 for the Devils and Tampa Bay
Data from NHL.com and Natural Stat Trick

You are reading this right. The Devils have an edge in stats in some aspect of the game of hockey against Tampa Bay! New Jersey legitimately has one of the stingier penalty kills in the NHL. They are also dangerous as they led the league in shorthanded goals. While Tampa Bay has found success against the Devils’ PK in their three games against each other, the Lightning power play may not always be able to do what it wants.

What’s more is that Tampa Bay’s own penalty kill has not done so hot in 2017-18. Their success rate was one of the worst in the league, only one team allowed more power play goals than them, and they were shorthanded quite a few times. The only positive is that they scored nine shorthanded goals. The Devils’ power play may not have been great in this season or in the previous two games against the Lightning, but they can feel confident about going up against a not-so-strong PK unit from TB.

The rate stats really show the advantage for New Jersey. When it comes to attempts, shots, and scoring chances, the Devils are among the league’s best in terms of supression. The rates are high, of course, this is all about shorthanded situations. But relative to the league, the Devils have done well in general to make it easier on their goalies. The goalies have been OK with respect to stopping those shots over the course of this season. Again, compare this to Tampa Bay. The Lightning have only excelled at preventing high-danger chances (even there, the Devils have been better) while they have allowed a lot of attempts and shots. The goaltending has also been relatively weak in these situations. Maybe the Devils won’t be able to get too close on their power plays but if they can fire away from distance or in mid-range areas (think where Palmieri likes to shoot from the right circle), they may be able to find plenty of success. That can mitigate whatever Tampa Bay’s power play does.

I’ve included the top five producers in shorthanded situations for each team as both teams have scored plenty of shorties. Since Henrique isn’t a Devil anymore, Zajac and Bratt moved up to the top five.

Devils and Tampa Bay Top 5 Scorers in Penalty Kill Situations in 2017-18
Data from Natural Stat Trick

Brian Gibbons and Blake Coleman are a dangerous forward pairing in 4-on-5 situations because they can and have and will attack. Especially Coleman, who is second to Grabner for the most shorthanded shots on net in the whole NHL. He’s an aggressive forechecker that can cause some delays for the Tampa Bay PP. Even in Grabner’s short time with the Devils he’s had a goal and six other shots - usually breakaways that many wish he could score on.

For Tampa Bay, the shorthanded threat is Point. He has three goals, eleven shots, and twelve scoring chances. While Tyler Johnson has two goals, those are his only shorthanded points. I get the sense that Point is like their version of Coleman, if he was younger, faster, smaller, and more offensively talented in general. So if you’re worried about a counter-attack during Tampa Bay’s penalty kill, then look out for him.

Still, the Devils have an advantage on the PK - which is better than no advantage at all.

The Goalies

We cannot forget about the goalies! New Jersey has had a changing of the guard (sort of) while Tampa Bay has been leaning on one man throughout this past season. For these charts, I used the goalie stats available at Corsica for 5-on-5 and penalty kill situations. The power play, well, goalie stats for those do not tell us much of anything so they are excluded.

Devils and Tampa Bay Goalies in 5-on-5 Play in 2017-18
Data from Corsica.hockey

Keith Kinkaid has risen above Cory Schneider in the past two months to take the #1 spot as the Devils pushed for the playoffs. With a not-so-good performance in the season ender, the expectation is that Kinkaid will at least start this series. As the 5-on-5 numbers show, neither goalie has really been that impressive. Their total save percentage in 5-on-5 play is below their expected save percentages. Their goals saved above average (the number of goals saved above a league average goalie) are both negative which is bad. Both are within the 79th percentile on high-danger save percentages (HD Sv%), which is unimpressive. As a whole, New Jersey’s goaltending does not look so good and it is probably because it was not for the whole season. Kinkaid has risen from a really awful 2017 portion of the season, so it is arguable that he’s been out-performing what these numbers suggest. Just ask Tampa Bay about the March 24 game for an example. The hope is that he stays risen and does not sink back to his previous form.

As for Tampa Bay, the goaltender is Andrei Vasilevskiy. He’s the main man. Louis Domingue is a #2 guy to be used only as needed. Peter Budaj is not in the picture any more. Vasilevskiy has had a very good season in 5-on-5 situations. His save percentage exceeded expectations and surpassed 93%, which is quite good. His high danger save percentage is 81%, which is also quite good. His GSAA is positive. Not very high at 3.22, but still positive. He did have a bad night against New Jersey on February 17, but those were not so often for him. Besides, if there’s a team whose offense can help out a goalie having a rough night, it’s Tampa Bay.

Devils and Tampa Bay Goalies in PK Situations in 2017-18
Data from Corsica.hockey

On the penalty kill, though, the Devils’ goalies look good and Vasilevskiy, well, does not. Both Kinkaid and Schneider beat their expected save percentages. They both were perfect on low danger shots. Kinkaid was great against medium and high danger shots too. Both posted positive GSAA values. Both Schneider and Kinkaid did well in shorthanded situations.

Vasilevskiy crumbled. He was expected to make a lot of saves -and he did not. He gave up some low-danger shots for PPGAs. His high danger save percentage was worse than Domingue’s, which is quite bad. It’s a good thing for him that the Lightning PK is good at suppressing high danger chance attempts because he did not stop enough of them. As a result, Vasilevskiy has a very low GSAA. Another reason to hope that the Devils’ power play can get going and function like a power play ahead of this playoff series.

The Coaches

The Devils’ head coach is John Hynes. His assistants are Alain Nasreddine, Geoff Ward, Ryane Clowe, and Roland Melandson. While this is Hynes’ first NHL playoff appearance as a head coach, he does have AHL and international experience in playoff and tournament situations. Ward (Boston) and Melandson (Vancouver, Montreal) also have been assistants on teams that went deep in the postseason. While the team has been rebuilding and made a big step forward in making the postseason, some of their team stats suggest there are many ways to go for this squad. (Link to staff page at official team website.)

The Lightning’s head coach is Jon Cooper. His assistants are Todd Richards and Brad Lauer; Frantz Jean as the goalie coach; and Rick Bowness as an associate coach. With the Lightning posting the best record in the East while being a positive team in the run of play, boasting one of the most dangerous power plays in the NHL, and getting good 5-on-5 goaltending, I’d say that the Lightning coaches are quite good. Cooper has been head coach since 2013 and has been the boss behind the bench as the team went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2015. He’s seen it all in the postseason, so he has an advantage in experience as well. (Link to staff page at official team website.)

How Can New Jersey Succeed Against Tampa Bay?

I threw a lot of stats and facts at you. Let’s get to the main question for this preview. How can the Devils succeed?

The main issue is that Tampa Bay really is a great team. They are one of the better teams in 5-on-5 play, they have one of the best power plays in the NHL, they have two of the highest scoring players in the league, they have one of the best top-six groups on paper, McDonagh strengthens an already good blueline (except at shot prevention), and Vasilevskiy has been tough to beat in 5-on-5 play. Tampa Bay did not just a great record, they earned it through their talent and the team’s utilization thereof. On paper, Tampa Bay is the better team. Despite the results in their three games, the Lightning arguably were the better team on the ice than the Devils. It’s not a #NJDvsEverybody thing. The odds understandably and reasonably favor Tampa Bay.

But it’s not a guarantee. Short of just playing out of their minds in 5-on-5 play, five things come to mind for how New Jersey can make this a series and perhaps even win it.

First, Keith Kinkaid (or Cory Schneider) needs to play great in net. The Devils succeeded in their three games against Tampa Bay because the goalies faced a lot of rubber and stopped a lot of rubber. At least a few will go in. That will happen, but if they can keep out as much as they can to keep the Devils in games, then that will be necessary. Given how good the Lightning are in 5-on-5 play and how good Vasilevskiy in net, expecting the Devils to keep up in a goal-race is not likely going to end well. The goalies are going to have to be great, not just good, for the Devils to succeed. In other words, if you believe Kinkaid has been hot (he has to a degree), then he must stay hot for the next two and a half weeks.

Second, the Devils are going to have to make their special teams count. Tampa Bay’s power play is fearsome and has been successful. The Devils’ PK is also strong so if they can hit back by killing as much as they can or even getting a few shorthanded goals, then that would be wonderful. When the Devils do get a power play - and they will - then they need to make them work. Even if it is all on one unit, the execution, the zone entries, and the communication need to be on point. Tampa Bay’s PK is the weakest part of their performance in this past season on paper. The Devils need to exploit that to help themselves out the most.

Third, don’t emulate how they play. The Devils and Lightning are similar in that they are fast teams that love to counter-attack. They both have players who can skate up the ice quickly, chase pucks, and make things happen as other teams are caught off guard. The thing is that the Lightning have better players. If the offense isn’t firing from Kucherov and Stamkos, it’s coming from Point and Gourde. If not them, then Johnson. Or Killorn. Or Miller. Or Palat. Or the defense with Hedman, Sergachev, and Stralman. Or even the fourth line. The point is that unless the Devils hit big when they go rush up ice, the Lightning are likely going to hit back twice as hard and that may not end well. Instead, the Devils need to frustrate the Lightning. They need to make that neutral zone like crawling through barbed wire while wearing wool. They need to keep the Lightning back and challenge them in dangerous spots. They need to play disciplined, not just from a penalty perspective but also from a tactical perspective. If this becomes an open-ended game, then I fear it will not end well. By making it about something uncomfortable of Tampa Bay, I think New Jersey will have more of a chance.

Fourth, the X-factors need to step up for New Jersey. Just about everyone not named Hall or Hischier on offense is an X-factor of sorts. If the game becomes about whatever the Hischier line can do on offense, then the Devils are in a bad place. They need offense to come from other sources. If Grabner can finish on breakaways, great. If the bottom six can catch fire for a bit, great. If the defensemen can fire in a few from distance or join a rush for a successful finish, great. The point is that while Hall has been carrying the offensive load for much of this season, he alone can’t make it happen against one of the highest scoring teams in hockey. He will need help. Here and there this season, they have done so. Now is the time to do so more consistently. This is their opportunity to do so in a big way. If that happens, then Tampa Bay has to worry about more than one line or one player or one power play unit - and that’s good for the Devils.

Fifth, take one or two of the first two games from Tampa Bay. As the Lightning have home ice, the Devils will definitely to win some games on the road. While Tampa Bay has one of the best home records in hockey, the Devils are not strangers to performing on the road or winning in tough places (ask Vegas and Toronto). If the Devils can come to the Rock for Game 3 with one or even two wins, then you’d have to like the Devils’ chances more and more. Coming to New Jersey down two games and it’s going to be a mountain to climb.

The Conclusions & Your Take

I am happy that the Devils are in the playoffs. Whatever happens does not diminish what they accomplished in this season. Not even if they get swept (which is hard to do, so don’t get too confident, Lightning fans). However, this is a playoff series and plenty can happen. When the puck drops, like any other fan, I want my favorite team to win. Do I expect the Devils to get out of the first round? I’m keeping it 100, so no. Do I want them to? Absolutely.

The brain says the Devils will fall in 6 games and will be cheered off the ice in Newark. The heart says win by some how and some way. That’s where I am at. Just remember: I’m willing to be wrong.

In conclusion to this massive playoff series preview, I turn to you, the Best Readers of 2017-18, for your take. What do you make of this playoff series preview? What have you learned from all of these stats? Who do you think will perform well for both teams? Who needs to do better? Most of all, who do you think will win this series? According to yesterday’s flash poll, 679 votes or 72% of the voters picked the Devils. Of course, this is a Devils blog so that’s no surprise. But if you could go into more detail, it would be appreciated.

Thank you for reading. Let’s Go Devils.