TAMPA — Here are six matchups that could define the Tampa Bay Lightning-New Jersey Devils' best-of-seven series, which starts at 7 p.m. Thursday at Amalie Arena:
The Vasilevskiy factor
Keith Kinkaid comes in as the hot goalie, with a 7-0-1 record in his last eight starts. Since taking over as starter in January, he is 16-3-1 with a 2.32 goals against average and a 9.29 save percentage. This will be his first playoff action. Andrei Vasilevskiy's first ever postseason start was in the 2015 Cup Finals. His last six playoff starts were in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals. He tied for the NHL lead with 44 wins his first year as a No. 1.
The Taylor Hall line
LW Taylor Hall led the Devils with 39 goals and 93 points — 41 points more than their next highest scorer, linemate C Nico Hischier (20 goals, 52 points). RW Kyle Palmieri had 20 goals and 44 points. It is a potent line, one that can carry a team in a series. While Lightning coach Jon Cooper likes to juggle his lines, his top unit is more potent with RW Nikita Kucherov's 39 goals and 100 points, C Steven Stamkos and his 59 assists to go with his 27 goals and LW J.T. Miller, who has a team-high 10 goals since joining the Lightning Feb. 26.
Testing the shutdown line
C Brayden Point and LW Ondrej Palat will be tasked with stopping the Hall line. No easy task, but they have been charged with stopping the opposing team's top lines all season and have done it well. The Devils will likely have their line of LW Blake Coleman, C Travis Zajac and RW Stefan Noesen on the Stamkos line. If they have some success, expect Cooper to mix his lines up to create a different look.
The Lightning starts the #NHLPlayoffs Thursday, and Tom Jones joins Rick Stroud to break down the series for you. #TBLightning #GoBolts @TB_Times @NFLSTROUD @TomWJones #NJDevils #Rays https://t.co/vHoOQNIJv0— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) April 11, 2018
Keep an eye on these grinders
RW Patrick Marron has 13 points since joining New Jersey from the Oilers at the trade deadline. A grinder who adds grit to the Devils' lineup, he could come up big if the Lightning lose track of him. C Tyler Johnson plays big during the postseason with 21 goals, 21 assists in 47 career games. The Devils will have their hands full stopping the Lightning if Johnson heats up.
Will the Lightning resemble the team that dominated the NHL for much of the season? Or will New Jersey continue to bedevil Tampa Bay? #TBLightning #GoBolts #NJDevils @TB_Times @TomWJones @mjfennelly @FrankPastor66 @gregauman @mjfennelly @RogerMooney50 https://t.co/0X3qO1qd9U— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) April 11, 2018
Faceoffs, faceoffs, faceoffs
The Lightning defense has been, umm, leaky during the last few weeks, allowing an average of 3.46 goals. That puts a lot of pressure on Vasilevskiy, especially if the Hall line gets hot. The Devils won 47 percent of faceoffs. While the Lightning is not the best in the circle (48.2), it has improved after the All-Star Break. Giving the Lightning offense extra possessions could be an issue.
Brayden Point received the minutes to develop into one of the Lightning's top players. Yanni Gourde got his feet wet. Andrei Vasilevskiy was given a month to get used to the role of No. 1 goalie. #TBLightning #GoBolts @RogerMooney50 @TB_Times @TBLightning https://t.co/VLHKPudczd— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) April 10, 2018
Everything is magnified in the playoffs, from faceoffs to penalty kills and line matchups. Cooper has the considerable edge here. This is his fourth playoff appearance. He's led the Lightning to the Cup Finals in 2016 and the conference finals in 2017. This is the first postseason for John Hynes, who is in his second season as the Devils coach.
"In the end, it's all about winning," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, "and that kid reeled off 44." #TBLightning #GoBolts @TBLightning @TB_Times @mjfennelly #NHLPlayoffs #NJDevils https://t.co/AmbJihKey2— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) April 10, 2018
Contact Roger Mooney at [email protected] Follow @rogermooney50