The Tampa Bay Lightning finished off the New Jersey Devils in five games. This series went pretty much according to my script; win the first two, drop the third in New Jersey, and win the next two to finish it out in five games. It was the kind of first round series that the Lightning needed. It got the team back into gear; it gave the kids some good experience against a team that, while still good, was not up to the Lightning’s level of play.
Here are some of my thoughts about the series as a whole.
Kucherov may not win the Hart Trophy for MVP of the league, but he was without a doubt the Lightning’s best player in the first round. In the first couple of games the first line looked a bit shaky. This was due in part to Steven Stamkos trying to get his legs back under him after missing the last few games of the regular season.
Kucherov got on the board in the first game, but that was the result of an empty net goal assisted by Stamkos. The second game saw him and his line pick it up. Kucherov assisted on a beautiful set-up of Alex Killorn in front on the power play and picked up an even-strength goal via a puck bouncing off of Sami Vatanen and going into the net.
Going into Jersey, Kucherov had two goals and an assist. He added two primary assists on the power play in game three, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Cory Schneider and the Devils. The Devils also sent Taylor Hall and his line out against the Stamkos line frequently, and they still ended up possessing the puck throughout the night. The second night in Jersey was the Kucherov show. He picked up an assist on an even-strength goal by J.T. Miller and then picked up one of his own before finishing it with his second goal of the night, an empty-netter.
Coming back home for game five was much more of a goaltender duel. Mikhail Sergachev had found a way to score in the first period, but it was all quiet from there through the first half of the third. That’s when Kucherov struck and gave the Lightning the cushion they needed. The Devils picked up a goal on a redirect with the goaltender pulled, but it wasn’t enough as the Lightning tightened up to take the win. Once again, the first line did really well with the possession game and if not for Schneider coming up with some big saves, the Lightning could have added even more to their point totals.
One other thing I want to point out about Kucherov’s five goal, ten point performance in the first round is that all but one of his points were primary points. His long secondary assist came on Alex Killorn’s second power play goal in game two. Kucherov got the secondary assist because his pass to Killorn bounced off of Miller and then to Killorn for the goal. This shows that Kucherov has been very much involved with his scoring. He hasn’t been a passenger that has benefited from racking up secondary assists from other players making the final plays to get a puck into the back of the net.
The Fourth Line
I can’t say enough about the fourth line. For most of the series, and even when Cory Conacher came in to replace an injured Ryan Callahan, the fourth line was solid. While the only point the four of them managed to pick up was the empty net goal by Ryan Callahan to seal the series, it felt appropriate that they would do so.
The biggest thing I can say was that they didn’t allow goals when they were on the ice. Only Cory Conacher ended up being on ice for a goal scored against at even strength. They all posted over a 50% CF%. They were nearly all over 60% in shots on goal percentage with Conacher falling just short at 58%. They took more high danger shots than they allowed. They were exactly what you need from a fourth line and they were better than the Devils’ fourth line all series.
As this series went along, I feel like we started to see the Vezina-worthy Andrei Vasilevskiy from earlier in the season. Gone were the soft goals that he’d like to have back. Back were making the big, timely saves. Over the last two games in the series, Vasilevskiy allowed only two goals. For both of those goals, the Devils needed an extra skater to accomplish it and on one goal they needed two extra skaters. If Vasilevskiy can capture what he did in those two games and keep it rolling into the next series, he has the ability to be unbeatable.
The Young Guns
The Lightning have a number of young guns in this series. There are four players that are either first- or second-year pros that are contributing to the Lightning and getting their first taste of the playoffs: Mikhail Sergachev, Anthony Cirelli, Brayden Point, and Yanni Gourde.
Sergachev has been very sheltered by the coaching staff. I pretty much expected his usage to be a repeat of the regular season. With the difference in the speed and intensity of the playoffs, the team has the strength on the blue line to allow Sergachev to dip his feet into the water and adjust. After five games, he has a goal and an assist and is averaging 10:28 TOI. I expect that as the playoffs go along and he continues to show that he can excel in the playoffs that his time is going to grow and take some of the pressure off of Braydon Coburn and Dan Girardi.
Cirelli and Gourde have made for a nice defensive third line with Alex Killorn. One thing that all three of them have in common is an unstoppable motor. All three will battle hard for the puck, fight along the boards, and go to the dirty areas. Cirelli only has an assist thus far and Gourde has picked up a goal and an assist. Both are averaging right at 14:50 TOI with both being a second in either direction. It’s actually interesting that they’re so close since Gourde plays on the power play while Cirelli plays on the penalty kill. The special teams times have balanced out for them to get them on the ice for almost identical amounts of time.
I feel like we have yet to see the best of Point in the series. He has a goal and two assists, but is also a minus two. His line was tasked with going up against the Hall line when the Lightning were at home and they got burned a couple times by bad turnovers. In the second round, he’ll be tasked with taking on top lines again, weather that Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak from the Boston Bruins or Auston Matthews and whoever lines up next to him with the Toronto Maple Leafs. I’d like to see him turn the tables on the opposing top line even more and score against them regularly while keeping them out of the net.