Time: 7:00 Eastern Time
Location: Amalie Arena
Broadcast / Streaming: NHL N, SUN, TVAS, SN, MSG+
Opponent SBNation Site: All About The Jersey
Whew! We made it. Another 82-game season in the books. Thanks to our best pals down in Sunrise on Sunday night, the Lightning were able to squeak past the Bruins and clinch not only the regular season Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference crowns but also only home ice for at least the first three rounds of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Bolts start what hopes to be a magical and unforgettable Spring tonight when the number 8 seed New Jersey Devils come to town for Game 1 of this 1st Round series. Jersey has had the Bolts’ number this year, winning all three games against the Bolts—one of which was an early-season shootout victory at the Prudential Center. Mind you that the Lightning put up a ridiculous 41+ shots on average per game across the season series, Budaj was in net for the shootout loss, and Lack and Kinkaid played out of their minds for the final 2 matches.
That is not to say that the Devils will be an easy out. They have a solid forward group led by my vote for the Hart Trophy, Taylor Hall, rookies Jesper Bratt and 2017 1st overall pick, Nico Hischier, veterans Marcus Johansson, Kyle Palmieri, and Brian Boyle. They bolstered their roster at the deadline with pending UFA wingers Michael Grabner and Patrick Maroon. In addition, they have two very solid top-four right-handed defensemen in Sami Vatanen and Damon Severson.
It will be very interesting to see which goaltender starts, and for that matter, finishes, this series for the Devils, depending on how things progress. I would bet good money that Keith Kinkaid starts and plays in his first NHL playoff game tonight. He is currently riding a hot streak and has been a career backup goaltender in the league, so one has to wonder…how much longer can he carry his team defensively?
As for the Lightning, it will be paramount to clean up the penalty kill and defensive structure, as the Devils’ speed could easily overpower the likes of Girardi and Coburn. Look for J.T. Miller to be an X-Factor, not only in this series but throughout the entirety of this playoff run, as the Lightning look to win their second Stanley Cup in franchise history. There was a clear message sent by General Manager Steve Yzerman in the deadline deal for McDonagh and Miller that the Lightning needed more sandpaper in their lineup, and J.T. Miller has fit in seamlessly into that role with the Bolts thus far.
This second season will also mark the playoff debuts of Yanni Gourde, Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, and Mikhail Sergachev. The aforementioned forwards should thrive in this type of atmosphere, as their speed and tenacity on the puck and forecheck is precisely what can tilt a series in one team’s favor. Cirelli, known for being a clutch performer in his junior career, has played superbly as the 3rd line pivot, and I very much look forward to seeing how he fares in his first taste of the NHL playoffs.
As for Sergachev, I will be watching to see how the coaching staff deploys their rookie defenseman. With McDonagh-Stralman as the presumed second pair, it will be interesting to see who plays with Hedman—granted he will likely see 25+ minutes per ice time each night. You just have to lean on your big horses in times like these. It is noteworthy to mention that at Tampa Bay’s practice on Monday, McDonagh replaced Sergachev on the 2nd power play unit. Something to keep an eye on, as I’m sure the coaching staff will lean heavily on the experience of Tampa’s top 3 defensemen.
All in all, I think the Devils will give the Lightning everything they can handle come opening puck drop tonight. This series should be exciting, as both teams will be ready and roaring to go by 7 p.m. The first playoff experience of Taylor Hall’s career should propel him to carry his team even more so than he has already done thus far this season—if that is even possible.
On paper, the Lightning have the edge in depth of forwards, defense, and in net. But, it’s the playoffs, and you never know what can happen. That’s the beauty of it. So, sit back, relax (surely, that, too, is impossible), and enjoy what could be a rollercoaster journey over the next two months.
My prediction: Bolts in 6.
Tampa Bay Lightning:
J.T. Miller - Steven Stamkos - Nikita Kucherov
Ondrej Palat - Brayden Point - Tyler Johnson
Alex Killorn - Anthony Cirelli - Yanni Gourde
Chris Kunitz - Cedric Paquette - Ryan Callahan
Victor Hedman — Dan Girardi
Ryan McDonagh — Anton Stralman
Braydon Coburn — Mikhail Sergachev
New Jersey Devils
Taylor Hall - Nico Hischier - Kyle Palmieri
Miles Wood - Pavel Zacha - Patrick Maroon
Blake Coleman - Travis Zajac - Stefan Noesen
Michael Grabner - Brian Boyle - Brian Gibbons
Andy Greene — Sami Vatanen
John Moore — Mirco Mueller
Will Butcher — Ben Lovejoy