Eastern Conference Quarter Finals
New Jersey Devils 44-29-9 (97 points) vs. 54-23-5 (113 points)
Tampa Bay and New Jersey will play in the first round. Tampa Bay finished with the best record in the East while New Jersey took the final wild card spot. New Jersey swept the season series, 3 games to 0. However I predict Tampa Bay to win this playoff series.
Of course, the attention in the series will be on Taylor Hall. He led the Devils in scoring by a wide margin and is among the favorites for the Hart (MVP) Trophy. Tampa Bay's defense will have their hands full. Expect Hall to see quite a bit of Ryan McDonagh and Anton Stralman. The two former Rangers dmen are paired up and are the Bolts best chance at shutting down Hall. Expect Brayden Point to be on the ice against the Hall unit as well. He has been Tampa Bay's matchup center all season long.
On New Jersey's end, Sami Vatanen and co. will have a tough time. Nikita Kucherov is one of the best players in the NHL and a constant offensive threat. He will be on a line with 2 time Rocket Richard winner Steven Stamkos and deadline acquisition JT Miller. That trio has proved to be deadly in the season and should be able to score at will vs a Devils d corps lacking a true #1. It will be interesting to see which Devils forwards are unfortunate enough to take this matchup.
Both of these teams should have the depth scoring to survive when the stars aren't scoring. Players like Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde, Alex Killorn, and Anthony Cirelli will be against the likes of Travis Zajac, Pavel Zacha, Blake Coleman, Miles Wood, and former Bolt Brian Boyle.
New Jersey did sweep the season series but were out-shot in all three games. Their wins were based on goaltending (a poor outing from Peter Budaj and stellar performances coming from Eddie Lack and Keith Kinkaid). Presumably in this series Kinkaid will start and face Vasilevskiy. Neither of these goalies has significant playoff experience, but Vasilevskiy played in the 2015 cup finals and 2016 conference finals and was stellar. Vasilevskiy also was the better goalie this regular season so it is safe to assume Tampa Bay has the goalie battle won.
One common concern with Tampa Bay is the penalty kill. This is a valid criticism and if they lose the series the PK will likely be to blame. However many of the players the team uses on the PK tend to step up in the playoffs (such as Ryan McDonagh). Add in the fact that referees tend to call less penalties in the playoffs and I see no reason that the PK should cost the Bolts too much in the series.
My prediction for the series is Tampa Bay in 5 games. While NJ does have speed, talent, and the dynamic duo of Hall and Hischier, it won't be enough to make up for their lack of a defender to shut down Kucherov. And Tampa has shown this season that even if Kucherov is shut down they have the ability to win games.
HFBoards Note: We asked fans of teams around the league to preview the upcoming playoff round of their team, this is one of the responses we received. Thanks to all those who submitted a preview!
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