How New Jersey Can Stun the Bolts

As absurd as it may have seemed when the Autumn leaves began falling last September, the New Jersey Devils survived the 82-game marathon as a playoff team in Spring.

And I don’t mean maybe either. Neither does the NHL postseason schedule which lists the Garden Staters starting their playoff quest on Thursday in Tampa Bay.

[Games 1, 3, 4 Can Be Seen On MSG, MSG+ & MSG GO]

The Devils are fresh, appropriately green and are blossoming into what could become the prettiest bunch of upset-makers that Bettman, Inc. could produce. General Manager Ray Shero has done a remarkable job as architect of this compelling club.

Facing the Lightning, coach John Hynes‘ sextet inevitably enter the tournament as distinct underdogs. But who cares? Certainly nobody in the Canine Corps.

Then again, the Devils are a team that no foe should want to face; for a number of reasons. The primary factor is the element of upset on their side. To wit:

1. They enter the postseason with a hot goalie, Keith Kinkaid.

2. They are playing with house money, having never been projected to go so far in the first place. The Devils are as loose as a poorly tied shoelace.

3. They are sustainable; every time during the season when they appeared to be fading, they became re-energized and fooled everyone by winning.

4. They boast a wise, understated, underrated coach in Hynes who has extracted the best of his material at hand.

5. They feature four character leaders — captain Andy Greene, cancer-beater Brian Boyle, injury-recovered Travis Zajac and potential Hart Trophy-winner Taylor Hall.

6. They skate hard and fast; especially youngsters such as Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Miles Wood, Pavel Zacha, Stefan Noesen, Will Butcher and Damon Severson.

But, dear Devils fans, there is a problem.

New Jersey is confronted by a star-studded Lightning team that finished far above them over the 82-game marathon. Yet they are not fazed and are in position to deliver another miracle.

HOW THE DEVILS CAN PULL AN UPSET:

1. FAST START: Winning the opener on Thursday in Tampa Bay would be an emphatic confidence-builder while getting the favorites to wondering.

[Games 1, 3, 4 Can Be Seen On MSG, MSG+ & MSG GO]

2. REDOUBLING DEFENSE: New Jersey’s blue line corps has been the club’s weak underbelly. Led by veteran captain Andy Greene, the D-men must turn into A-men, although the Bolts have the best defense in the East.

3. HALL OF FAME: Taylor Hall will be counted upon to lead the scorers. His game has peaked and he’s as eager as anyone now readying for his first NHL playoff experience. He’s capable of playing MVP hockey.

4. KING KINKAID: Pacing his club through the homestretch run and now into the post-season, Goalie Keith has the faith of his followers and just might continue his reliable work in the crease.

5. LOVING THEIR ROLE: Playing the underdog, New Jersey has no pressure to get past the first round. A loosey-goosey attitude could be the way to win.

THE OBSTACLES:

The Lightning entered last season as a Stanley Cup favorite but failed to make the post-season for the first time since 2013. They have since made significant changes and are thirsting for that bubbly Champagne.

Here’s why they’re heavily favored and could march all the way to the Final Round:

OFFENSE: Egad! The Lightning can roll four lines all night although the 1-2 punch headliners are Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Not to be outdone, youngsters Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde prove that size isn’t everything when it comes to machine-gunning goals.

Now that J.T. Miller has added substance to the arsenal, it’s even more impressive when you consider such redoubtables as Chris Kunitz, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn and Cedric Paquette. For grit and ultimate leadership, ex-Rangers captain Ryan Callahan remains a mainstay of the group. Considerable playoff experience is laced throughout the lineup.

DEFENSE: You’d be hard-pressed to find a more well-rounded blue line brigade than one with Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman as its nucleus. The ex-Rangers Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh are looking to do better this year in the post-season than last term in New York.

Add to that Mikhail Sergachev, obtained from Montreal in the Jonathan Drouin deal. He’s an up-and-comer who came to camp with another year of Junior eligibility remaining. The depth is further underlined with the likes of Andrej Sistr, Jake Dotchin, Braydon Coburn and the ever-unpronounceable Slater Koekkoek, the tenth overall pick in the 2012 Draft.

GOALTENDING: For more than three-quarters of the season Andrei Vasilevskly viewed pucks as if they were Goodyear Blimps. He paced goaltenders with wins and a very skimpy goals-against average. The trick is that in the run to the wire he appeared worn out by overwork and, therefore, could be less effective in the playoffs. This time around, he doesn’t have to worry about any Ben Bishop competition.

For safety’s sake, general manager Steve Yzerman provided both veteran Peter Budaj and Louis Domingue as back-ups although reliance on anyone but Vasilefskly is chancy.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Tampa Bay boasts a power play that will test the best penalty-killers in captivity. Quarterbacked by the monstrous Hedman who loves to feed either Stamkos or Kucherov, the PP is scary stuff. Coach Jon Cooper can further terrorize New Jersey with his assortment of extra added riflemen.

Not to be outdone, Cooper’s penalty-killers rank with the NHL’s best thanks to the Point-Gourde duet, always a shorthanded threat. Callahan, Girardi, and Kunitz also are effective PK reinforcements.

INTANGIBLES: Loaded with playoff experience, the Lightning’s lineup has leadership sprinkled throughout the right places. Stamkos and Callahan are the most fervent in that bureau.

COACHING: Cooper looked like a goner after his club missed the post-season last year but a late rally in 2016-17 staved off the pink slip. And a good thing, too, since his orchestration this season has produced a sensational symphony.

WHAT THE DEVILS ARE SAYING:
  • TAYLOR HALL: “I know much has been made about myself but we’re a team that relies on everyone. We’re a four-line team. I’m really proud of this group and especially the way we played down the stretch and have been able to overcome everything.”
  • BRIAN BOYLE: “Plenty of people were writing us off so it made it pretty sweet when we clinched the playoff berth. As for the playoffs, I’ve told my (younger) teammates that it’s going to be so much fun; that they’ve never played hockey this fun until it’s playoff hockey.”
  • KEITH KINKAID: “It’s been fun so far but the playoffs are a new breed.”
  • COACH JOHN HYNES: “Keith Kinkaid symbolizes what our team is about. We’ve gone through different situations where guys have had to step up whether it’s because of injuries or competition within our team. He’s worked hard to get where he is now and, hopefully, he’ll continue at the same level.”

CONCLUSION: It would be folly to doubt that Tampa Bay will go all the way in this opening round. Then again, it was folly to suggest on opening day last October that New Jersey would be facing off against the Bolts on Thursday.

In other words, they didn’t invent the word “upset” for nothing.

[Games 1, 3, 4 Can Be Seen On MSG, MSG+ & MSG GO]

The Garden of Dreams Foundation helps kids facing obstacles in the Tri-State area, including Rangers fan Taylor Ryan who is battling a rare blood disorder called Langerhans cell histiocytosis.