The Tampa Bay Lightning finished a playoff spot before April even started, and the only real drama they faced was whether they would win their division or not. The New Jersey Devils, however, scratched and scratched until the last game of the season.
Maybe it was the lack of urgency and Andrei Vasilevskiy's fatigue that made the Bolts' goal a little less inspirational for the 2017/18 season? Tampa Bay went 5-4-1 in its last 10 games, as only one example, with Vasilevskiy and Nikita Kucherov losing significant ground in their respective trophy races.
The Lightning still finished on the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, going 54 -23-5 for 113 points. The Devils finished one point ahead of the Florida Panthers for the last wildcard of the East, earning 97 points on a 44-29-9 record.
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Even with a less than spectacular end to the season, the Lightning are big favorites. Tampa Bay is one of the biggest favorites of all teams in the first round due to its strengths and weaknesses perceived by the Devils.
Beyond the momentum, the Devils may be hoping to sweep the season series against the Lightning. They won once in a shootout and twice in regulation. Maybe New Jersey is in good agreement with Tampa Bay?
Let us break this series.
] Lightning: It is easy to use the Lightning as the only double strike of a successfully returning one Steven Stamkos (27 goals, 86 points) and Kucherov, who for the first time in his wild form reached the 100-point mark, underestimated career. The scary part is that it's not just about them, nor about J.T. Miller in Vladislav Namestnikov's old place.
This series might suggest to casual hip hop fans that Brayden Point is an ascending star. He scored 32 goals and 66 points this season, in sometimes spectacular ways:
Yanni Gourde would also receive more Calder Trophy Buzz in a normal season when he scored 25 goals and 64 points. The Lightning also has other nice strikers, including Tyler Johnson (21 goals, 50 points), Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat. While Palat scored only 35 points, he was limited to 56 games.
The biggest injury issue is about Stamkos, who missed a few games in the preseason. Will he be 100 percent either from Game 1 or just sometime in this series?
Devils: It's well known, but true: Taylor Hall's drop (93 points) to Devils second-best scorer (Nico Hischier, 52 points) is dramatic.
Hall deserves to earn Hart Trophy buzz, and he's the one-player who could make the devils annoy victories over the Bolts on his very first visit to the postseason.
It is unfair to say that he is the only weapon for New Jersey. Although limited to 62 games, Kyle Palmieri remains an under-the-radar jewel, scoring 24 goals and 44 points. Patrick Maroon was a blessing over the close and gained 13 points in 17 games with the devils. Michael Grabner was quiet, but his speed and ability could be useful in a short series, especially with the motivation of having a contract year hanging over his head.
Advantage : Lightning. Few teams own the arsenal that owns Tampa Bay.
Lightning: Victor Hedman could win the Norris Trophy this season. You can argue until your face turns blue, who deserves this nod, but he deserves the right to be in the discussion and score 63 points in 77 games while playing a good defense.
Mikhail Sergachev may still be in action His attack is already impressive, with the rookie collecting 40 points this season despite a modest ice age (15:21 minutes per game). You can enjoy the best of both worlds by protecting him and using him to appreciate situations.
Ryan McDonagh is still adapting to Tampa Bay. This is the time they got him, as he could be a key piece in matchups. He is accompanied by other former Rangers Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi, though the Lightning are likely to limit Girardi exposure (even after a relatively decent season).
Devils: New Jersey still looks weak on defense on paper (19659002) Sami Vatanen is becoming a workhorse for the Devils, with 22:44 per game and 28 points in 57 games. Will Butcher has his own way to go, but he has already scored 44 points in his first NHL season.
Damon Severson, Andy Greene and John Moore are among the Bluelers who can prove that they are worth more a look with strong playoffs.
Advantage : Lightning by a wide margin
Lightning: Andrei Vasilevskiy is still a Vezina finalist and it's easy to see why with a 44-17-3 record, .920 save percentage and eight lockouts. He is also successful in the postseason game and has saved the same percentage of .920 in 12 playoff appearances.
His most recent play is the elephant in the room, which tired itself in the years 2017-18. Keep in mind that in 41 games before the All-Star break, he has generated a brilliant .931 save percentage, only to save a bad backup level of .902 in 24 games after the break.
Louis Domingue has not really inspired any trust as his support.
Devils: With Cory Schneider seemingly in a career crisis, the devils turned to Keith Kinkaid. Kinkaid proved to be surprisingly resilient to New Jersey and produced a four-game winning streak that helped them lock the playoff spot and achieve a 41,000-saving percentage through 41 appearances.
Advantage : Lightning, even if Vasilevskiy's energy comes into question.
Lightning: The Powerspiel of Bolts is one of the deadliest NHLs. Percent success rate at 66 power play goals and only allowed three shorthanded goals. Their penalty, however, killed, with a PK% of just 76.1 percent, fourth-worst in the NHL (64 PPGA, nine shorthanded goals for that).
Devil: New Jersey closed at 21.4 percent on its strength plays, good for 54 PPG and six SHGA. They shone on the PK by finishing seventh in the NHL, conceding 81.8 percent of their penalties (47 gymnastics gates allowed, 12 goals scored).
Advantage : Devils, as they mix a very nice power game with one of the better PK units, especially considering how dangerous they are with 12 shorthanded goals. The power play of lightning, however, is so dominant that it could make this balance irrelevant.
Lightning: Will Vasilevskiy be anywhere near him? best self or his tank really empty? This Lightning team is balanced and dangerous at the top, but poor goalies can submarine even the strongest teams.
Devils: Taylor Hall in his first playoff series. It's a great story and there's a good chance he'll be the best player on the ice. Could he be such a force that he tilts this series in favor of New Jersey?
Flash in five games. The Bolts have the top heavy talent to knock Taylor Hall out of the race, and even if they lose that fight, they'll probably dominate from deep down. Vasilevskiy also gives them an advantage on the net … at least on paper.
If you're a Devils fan who's grumbling, think about it: New Jersey seems to be thriving when it comes to ignoring the odds. Why not in the first round?
James O'Brien writes for Pro Hockey Talk at NBC Sports . Write him a message to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cycylikesedins .