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The New Jersey Devils will take on the Eastern Conference winning Tampa Bay Lightning in the 1st round of this year's playoffs.
While the Devils enter as clear underdogs, and rightfully so, that doesn't mean they can't win. It's just unlikely.
Let's take a look at five keys that will ultimately decide whether the Devils give the Lightning a good run, and perhaps upset them, or are sent packing early:
1. 2nd line production
It's important not to get carried away with small sample sizes. Still, it's easy to be excited about what we've seen from the new-look 2nd line of Miles Wood, Pavel Zacha and Patrick Maroon. In their limited time together, they held their heads above water in the shot department and, more importantly, combined on four goals over the course of two games. This line has shown signs it can be exploited defensively but so far they've been able to generate enough offense to outweigh that.
The Travis Zajac line will have its hands full trying to slow down Tampa's top trio, and the 4th line is the 4th line so it's probably not realistic to expect much from them – especially if Marcus Johansson and/or Jesper Bratt aren't featured on it. The 2nd line has to contribute and take some of the burden off Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, and Kyle Palmieri.
2. Power play success
The Lightning are not a stout defensive team like the Boston Bruins. Still, they are similarly great because they have the ability to out-score their problems unlike any other. At 5v5, they scored a league-best 196 goals and finished tops in goal differential as a result. It will be very tough to beat them in that game state.
If the Devils are going to have a shot, they need their power play to erase some of the damage that will likely be done at full-strength. Luckily, that seems like a reasonable ask.
The Devils scored 19 power play goals over their last 25 games. Dating back to the middle of February, only Colorado, Boston, and Toronto scored more.
Over that same span, the Lightning gave up 22 goals on the PK. Only Montreal allowed more. The Bolts ranked 23rd in chance suppression during that time, too, so it's no coincidence teams have found success against them.
The Devils have really been dangerous on the man advantage since they acquired Patrick Maroon and parked him in front of the net. If that continues, the Devils should be able to hang around.
3. The 2nd pairing has to step up
John Moore and Damon Severson have been a roller coaster together this season. They've been really good in stretches. Others they've looked completely lost and have run into trouble defensively. It's been more of the latter of late so John Hynes has broken them up and is currently going with a Moore - Mirco Mueller pairing. The problem is that pairing has struggled even more (their CF% and GF% range from 2-4% worse).
Regardless of the combo Hynes uses, the Devils will be in trouble if their 2nd pairing doesn't play better. The Lightning have a lot of firepower and can easily exploit any struggling players.
4. Keith Kinkaid
I never thought I'd be writing up Keith Kinkaid as a key to having success in a playoff series but here we are.
The guy is on some kind of run. He has posted a ridiculous .929 save percentage since February 13th, which ranks him 4th among 19 eligible goaltenders (1,000+ minutes).
Andrei Vasilevskiy, who once seemed like a lock to win the Vezina, owns an .899 save percentage over the same span. Using the same criteria, he ranks 17th among 19 eligible goaltenders. The two below him failed to reach the playoffs.
It's probably safe to say Tampa Bay will out-shoot and out-chance the Devils in this series. Kinkaid will have to stay hot, and out-play Vasilevskiy, for the Devils to have success.
Tampa Bay is absolutely lethal on the power play. They have as much firepower as any team in hockey and scored more on the man advantage than all but Pittsburgh and Colorado.
The Devils do have a very good penalty kill but it won't much matter if they parade to the box in this series. Any more than three penalties per game and you're really asking a lot from the penalty killers.
Note: data via NaturalStatTrick.com and Corsica.Hockey.
On the Devils' new 2nd line and Hischier
Marcus Johansson has played better than given credit for