Schedule: G1 Thursday, G2 Saturday, G3 April 16th, G4 April 18th
After a serious push and some back and forth from the Bruins in the Flortheast division, ultimately the division and the top record in the east were held by the favored, well-rounded, and supple Tampa Bay Lightning, doing what they were supposed to do during the regular season. Their opponent, however, is somewhat unexpected in the New Jersey Devils, who managed to fall ass backwards into a playoff spot after a hot streak that saw them leading the Metro division even around Christmas time even in the middle of a supposed rebuild.
Goalies: At long last, it will be the Andrei Vasilevskiy show in Tampa after he got the cage full time this season in the wake of Ben Bishop’s probably overdue exit. Vas had a Vezina caliber season with a .920 overall and .930 at evens, though under a full workload he’s slipped in every month since the turn of the calendar year. After sporting a .943 in December, he’s followed that up with months of .916, .916, .883, and .900. It’s not surprising for his first year as a full time starter, and could give the Ning pause, but Vas’s athleticism could be the difference (get it), and is capable of stealing any game he suits up for, and the Bolts certainly have the firepower to support him. As for his counterpart, Cory Schneider only played his 5th game since the beginning of March in the Devils’ finale against the Caps, as Keith Kinkaid has taken the starter’s workload in the wake of a faltering Schneider. Kinkaid is only marginally better at .913 overall than Schneider’s unsightly .903, but it’s enough to get him the start in Game 1, and at least if he gets his doors blown off Schneider has experience going into crucial playoff games cold. Memories.
Forwards: It needs to be gotten out of the way right at the outset that what Taylor Hall has done this year has been amazing to watch, and the fact that he should very well be a Hart finalist after leading the Devils in scoring by FORTY ONE points, setting a career high with 93 including 39 goals and has made Peter Chiarelli look like even more of a dipshit in doing so, which is always fun. But even with Nico Hischier showing some promise at center after being the #1 overall pick and Kyle Palmieri giving his team 20 goals whether they need them or not, this Devils bunch is simply no match for arguably the best top-to-bottom forward corps in the East, rivaled only by Winnipeg’s firepower. The Ning boast a Hart candidate of their own in Nikita Kucherov, not to mention Steven Stamkos’ 86 points, and had so many 20 goal scorers (6 of them) they could afford to trade one of them in Vlad Namestnikov in order to bolster their center depth in bringing back J.T. Miller in the Ryan McDonagh deal with the Rangers. While Devils coach Jon Cooper could very well be a greasy sex pervert, he’s decidedly in the “Not A Moron” catergory of coaches, and probably has a pretty acute understanding of just how to work around whatever line matching John Hynes wants to do with Brian Boyle. This is just too lopsided.
Defense: Again, while there were bright spots for the Devils on the blue line such as Damon Severson’s development or Will Butcher taking the leap from the NCAA and becoming a power play weapon, the Lightning have one of the best defensemen in the game in Victor Hedman who did his damnedest to win the 2015 Final by himself, and now that there’s actual depth on the blue line with McDonagh and Mikhail Sergechev, he and longtime partner Anton Stralman aren’t logging nearly the intense minutes they have been asked to in the past, and obelisks like Braydon Coburn and Andrej Sustr can be sheltered far easier.
Prediction: While the Bruins finished hotter and Vasilevskiy is unproven in being the guy in the spring, the defensive depth in Tampa finally matches that of the forwards, and their oiled-and-robed coach can keep all for lines playing at a pace that maybe 2-3 other teams can even consider going at for a game or two, let alone a series. And as fun as Taylor Hall’s year has been, the Devils feel like merely a speed bump on the road to Tampa’s second round matchup with Boston. Ning in 5.