The Tampa Bay Lightning start their playoff quest on Thursday night at home in Amalie Arena against the New Jersey Devils. The Lightning finished the regular season atop the Atlantic Division and as the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The Devils finished fifth in the Metro and eighth in the conference. That puts them in the crossover position sliding over to the Atlantic bracket to face the top-seeded Lightning.
On paper, this is a one-sided matchup. Most models have Tampa Bay heavily favored. Micah Blake McCurdy’s model has the Lightning at 66% to win the series. Emmanuel Perry has them at 83% to win the series. Dom Luszczyszyn has them at 74%. To try to understand why the Lightning are favored, we’ll use the matchup chart that we’ve used in the game previews here at Raw Charge all season. On these charts, the bars represent the full season and the dots represent the last ten games of the season. All data is via Corsica.
On the season as a whole, Tampa has been one of the better teams in the league. They’ve been strong in both shot share and expected goal share at 5v5. Those numbers are driven by their ability to suppress shots and limit dangerous chances. Offensively, they’ve relied more on shooting talent to score goals. While they did a good job of generating shot volume earlier in the year, that hasn’t been the case lately. And they haven’t done a good job of generating quality chances with any consistency this season.
Recently though, the Lightning have been closer to a league average team at 5v5 than the top team they were earlier in the season. That’s evidenced by the location of the dots in these graphs.
Speaking of teams that look average, the Devils are about as average as average gets. They are almost exactly average in expected goal share and below average in shot share. They’ve been able to generate quality chances and that has propped up their 5v5 offensive numbers. But their defense has given up just as much keeping them in the middle of the pack.
Neither team has excelled on special teams. Both teams’ power plays have been middling. The Devils have a decent penalty kill. The Lightning’s penalty kill is certainly...something. They went through a stretch early in the year where it looked like the penalty kill would be a huge advantage. Over the last couple of months...it has not been that. Instead, that unit has oscillated between mediocre and atrocious, landing closer to mediocre in the last ten games.
How the Lightning perform down a skater will be a key in this series. If they yield time and space to players like Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier, they will almost certainly pay for it. But if they can find the structured aggression that marked their play early in the year, they should be fine. They’ll also need Andrei Vasilevskiy to do his part, which hasn’t always been the case this season as shown by how many more goals they’ve allowed than would be expected at 4v5.
Now that we’ve looked at the teams, we can look at the skaters for each team to see what we can learn about roster depth and who the key players will be. Here, blue is good and orange is bad. Again, all data is via Corsica.
First, the Lightning. If you’ve been reading along with us all season, you’re probably very familiar with this chart. But for those who are just tuning in for the playoffs, let’s dig in a little bit. Nikita Kucherov is a superstar. He has over 100 points this season and is a potential Hart Trophy finalist. But he hasn’t been the only standout forward for the Lightning. Steven Stamkos has been his partner in a dynamic duo driving one of the most dominant top lines in the league this season. Both have scored at a high rate at even strength and on the power play.
The trio of Brayden Point, Yanni Gourde, and Alex Killorn do not get as much credit as the two top-line stars. But look at all the blue in their columns. All three have been key contributors in all situations. At 5v5, they’ve been the most consistent play drivers and added plenty of scoring pop to go along with tilting the ice. If you’re looking for new storylines, keep an eye on these three to see if they can keep up their excellent play from the regular season.
The Lightning defense does not have the depth of the forward group. They rely heavily on Victor Hedman who more than answered the call with another Norris caliber season. After him, Mikhail Sergachev has looked great in limited usage. He’s playing on the third pair currently but has performed well above that level all season. No one else has distinguished themselves this season but the newly formed pair of Anton Stralman and Ryan McDonagh has been playing well lately.
A quick glance at the Devils heatmap shows the difference in depth between these two teams. While the Lightning certainly have weaknesses, the Devils chart shows far more orange.
The Devils have two absolute stars on their top line in Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier. Hall has been even better than Kucherov this season and will likely finish ahead of him in the Hart Trophy race. He scores a ton. He drives play. Looking at his column, finding something to dislike is almost impossible. He’s lived up to every bit of his potential and has emerged this season as one of the top players in the league.
Hischier would be in contention for the Calder in a normal year but Mat Barzal ran away with that award so the number one overall pick in 2017 will have to settle for being the first line center on a playoff team. Hischier looks to be deserving of his draft position and seems likely to emerge as a star in coming seasons.
After those two, the pickings get slim real quick like. No one else has driven play in a meaningful way except Stefan Noesen. No one else has scored much except Miles Wood. This is a top-heavy team that relies on Hall and Hischier to win them games.
The defense is equally sparse in depth. Will Butcher has been outstanding in his rookie season. Sami Vatanen has been just ok since being acquired in a trade for Adam Henrique last fall. After that, yikes. Aside from Ben Lovejoy’s weirdly good season, that’s a lot of orange. Not featured in the chart is Mirco Mueller who will likely be in the lineup. He isn’t included because he didn’t meet the TOI requirements due to injury. And while he’s an improvement over some of the other options here, he doesn’t make a significant difference in the outlook.
Season Series Breakdown
With an idea of how the team and individual skaters have performed all season for both teams, let’s look at how the season series went between these two teams. The chart below shows 5v5 score and venue adjusted shot and expected goal numbers for the three games the teams played this year. The data here is via Corsica and Natural Stat Trick.
The Devils won the season series 3-0. It doesn’t take much time looking at this chart to figure out those results are not representative of how the games went. The Lightning had over 50% of the shots and expected goals in the series. The Devils got slightly more dangerous shots. This was a close series overall with the Lightning getting the better of play by a slight margin. Losing all three games was an exceptionally harsh result. If the Lightning play the Devils the way they did in the regular season, we would expect them to win in six or seven games.
Looking at the individual players, Point is skewing the y-axis of the chart because of how great he was. As we discussed above, the big difference between the Lightning and Devils is depth. The Lightning have three lines that can all cause havoc. The Devils have one. No matter how smart the Devils are about their deployment, they’re going to end up with a bad matchup at least half the time. In the regular season series, Point and his linemates were the primary beneficiaries of that.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper rarely chooses to hard match his lines against the opposition and I doubt he’ll do so in this series. The Lightning have a clear advantage and would be probably be better off just rolling their lines without concerning themselves with what the Devils are doing. If the Hall-Hischier lines becomes a problem, the coaches could decide to hard match with the Point line to try to neutralize them.
The Lightning are the favored team for a reason. Their results support that. The data supports that. The rosters support that. But that favorite status is predicated on the Lightning regaining some of their form from earlier in the year. If they play the way they have over the last couple of weeks, this could end up being a much closer series than it needs to be.
The Devils have enough talent on their top line to create problems. They have enough speed in the forward group to put the Lightning in bad spots if they get the opportunity. The best version of the Lightning would handle this series comfortably. And the outcome will be decided by how close the Lightning come to their peak.
Hockey is a sport perpetually prone to upsets. A hot or cold goaltending or shooting run can easily shift the outcome of a series. If the Lightning were to succumb to percentage luck, that would be hockey. But barring that, they should win this series. They are a better team than the Devils and they should play like it. That means outshooting them. That means outchancing them. That means doing the things they did to teams in November and December.
The fan base has debated ad nauseam about whether this team can “flip the switch” when the playoffs arrive. Well...now’s when we’ll know. This will be the last time the Lightning play a team over whom they have a clear talent advantage in the 2017-2018 season. It would be good to see them look like it and put the Devils away convincingly.