Lightning-Devils preview, pick: Stamkos & Co. should win a close one

The Tampa Bay Lightning (54-23-5) were, at one point, the consensus pick to emerge from the Eastern Conference. They had all the pieces and added a few more at the trade deadline. But the natural slowing of their pace, some goaltending struggles and the rise of the Boston Bruins meant the Lightning had to wait until the last game of the regular season to clinch the Atlantic Division.

The New Jersey Devils (44-29-9) clinched their unlikely playoff spot in Game 81 after finishing last in the Eastern Conference last season. They were powered by an MVP-caliber performance from winger Taylor Halland buoyed by the stellar goaltending of backup Keith Kinkaid down the stretch.

The Devils went 3-0-0 against the Lightning in the regular season, for what that's worth. Since 1993-94, there has never been a first-round series in which the team with the fewest points was unbeaten against the team with the most points in their respective conference, according to the Elias Sports Bureau research.

First line. Nikita Kucherov (39 goals, 61 assists, 100 points) and Steven Stamkos (27-59-86) were the NHL's most dynamic duo in the regular season. Vladislav Namestnikov ran shotgun with them for most of the season until he was flipped in the Ryan McDonagh deal at the trade deadline. Enter former Ranger J.T. Miller, who has posted 18 points in 19 games with the Lightning. The Devils have their own dynamic duo: Hall (39-54-93) and rookie Nico Hischier (20-32-52), who have excelled with both Kyle Palmieri (24-20-44) and rookie Jesper Bratt (13-22-35). Hall has to be seen to be believed -- he has willed this team to the postseason. Advantage: Lightning.

Depth. The Lightning have some firepower. Brayden Point (32-43-66), rookie Yanni Gourde (25-39-64), Tyler Johnson (21-29-50), Alex Killorn (15-32-47) and Ondrej Palat (11-24-35) are dangerous -- and don't sleep on Chris Kunitz for playoff heroics. The Devils' scoring extends beyond the first line thanks to 10 players who have double-digit goals, from swift forwards such asMiles Wood (19) and Blake Coleman (13) to vets such asBrian Boyle (13) and Travis Zajac (12). Advantage: Lightning.

Defense. Victor Hedman (25:51 per game) is in line to win his first Norris Trophy after a season in which he posted 17 goals and 46 assists. He has played with both Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi recently, as has Ryan McDonagh, as the Lightning try to find defensive combos that click. Rookie Mikhail Sergachev and veterans Andrej Sustr and Braydon Coburn are also in the mix. The Devils rely on Sami Vatanen and Andy Greene as a top pairing, followed by a mix of Damon Severson, John Moore,Mirco Muellerand rookie Will Butcher, who was third on the team with 44 points. Advantage: Lightning.

Goaltending. Andrei Vasilevskiy finished with a .929 even-strength save percentage but said he was tired toward the end of his first season as a starter, having made 65 appearances. His second-to-last start in Boston, a shutout, was encouraging. Everything else in the past month was not. Were it not for Keith Kinkaid, the Devils would not be in the playoffs. Starter Cory Schneider lost 10 of his previous 11 starts and has seen the crease only three times since March 1. Enter Kinkaid: 11-1-1 in 14 appearances since March 6, allowing two or fewer goals in six of those games. If he stumbles, Schneider is there to take back the crease. But would the Devils want that? Advantage: Even.

Special teams. The Lightning have the third-best power play in the NHL (23.9 percent), as Kucherov had 36 power-play points. The Devils were No. 10 with a 21.4 percent efficiency. Meanwhile, the Devils were eighth on the penalty kill (81.8), while the Lightning were 28th (76.1 percent). The Lightning were shorthanded 10 more times than the Devils. Advantage: Devils.

Coaching. Jon Cooper has coached the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final and the conference final twice. His cerebral approach to the game is a benefit, as is the familiarity he has with the roster. John Hynes deserves credit for pushing so many correct buttons this season, but he's an unproven commodity in the playoffs. Advantage: Lightning.

Health. Stamkos has been battling a lower-body injury, and the hope is that he's ready for the first round. The Devils have some bumps but nothing serious. Advantage: Even.

Series pick: Lightning in six.
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