A casual fan might look at the New Jersey Devils – Tampa Bay Lightning series and not be surprised. The #1 seed is up 2-0 on the #8 seed and they have won by a combined score of 10-5. But after watching the Devils all season, I’m surprised. And I’m optimistic that these Devils aren’t done yet.
Neither of the first two games of the series have been the Devils best. And by all means, Tampa is an incredible offensive team who may be just too much for this young New Jersey group to handle. But the Devils have out shot Tampa by 17 over the first two games and have been able to pin the Lightning in their end of the ice on numerous occasions. A couple tweaks to their game, and a reversal of some unlikely trends – the Devils can easily flip this series. As the saying goes, you aren’t out of a series until you lose a game at home. Which brings us to Game 3 in New Jersey.
A quick glance at some of the aforementioned abnormal activity from Games 1 & 2 shows that this series could be a lot closer than the scoreboard says:
- The Lightning are currently shooting at 20%. They averaged 10% in the regular season.
- The Devils are currently shooting at 6%, they also averaged 10% in the regular season.
- The Lightning PP is 3 for 4 but the Devils PK was 8th in the NHL at almost 82% during the regular season. The
- Devils know they can’t take penalties against this team, but even if they do they’ve proven they should have the ability to kill it off.
- Andrei Vasilevskiy has a .934 save percentage – since Jan 1 he was only at .903.
If any of these trends swing back in the Devils favor, I’d expect games much more reminiscent of the three wins New Jersey had over Tampa Bay during the regular season. Additionally, with the series shifting north, the Devils’ Head Coach John Hynes will have the ability to get more favorable matchups – specifically getting the Zajac–Noeson–Coleman line out against what has proven to be Tampa’s most effective line of Point–Palat–Johnson. None of these factors alone may make the difference, but if the Devils bring their best, the Lightning know they are susceptible.
The one big question mark for Game 3 is going to be the starting Devils goaltender. Keith Kinkaid is the only reason the Devils are in the postseason, going 11-2-1 in his last 14 games, while Cory Schneider hasn’t won a start since December 2017. That said, 10 goals against is a lot in two games – even if only 1 or 2 can really be held against Kinkaid. Schneider looked a lot more composed in the final period of Game 2 than he has in months, but in what is a must win game, does Coach Hynes have the guts to make that change? I’m not even going to try and guess. Hynes has pushed a lot of the right buttons this year and I’ll leave this one up to him as well.
Two players the Devils need more from are Pavel Zacha and Kyle Palmieri. While the Devils offense hasn’t been firing on all cylinders, the big players have gotten on the score sheet – Hall, Hischier, Zajac, Butcher. Palmieri was the third leading scorer for New Jersey in the regular season and so far his only contribution in the postseason has been a bad penalty in Game 2 that led to a Lightning goal. Meanwhile, Zacha didn’t light up the score sheet for the Devils this season, but in the back half of the season, he was a key player with timely goals, great tw0-way play and was relied on to help break the puck out of the defensive zone. The latter is something the Devils can struggle with mightily. If they are going to come back in this series, Zacha and Palmieri will be part of the reason why.