In this week’s Q&A, Ken Daneyko breaks down the Devils’ first-round matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
MSGNetworks.com: For the first time since 2012, the Devils are back in the playoffs. Before we break down the series against Tampa, gives us your thoughts on the regular season.
Ken Daneyko: When we talked right from the start of the season, I said that there was a different feel to this team. I can’t say enough about the job Coach [John] Hynes and his staff have done, along with [General Manager] Ray Shero assembling the team this season. From the start of training camp, you could see the commitment and they were going to hold each other accountable. They made the guys on the team believe in this process, not just saying that they did.
But you also need some talent to make it all work and Ray Shero was able to do that by adding different pieces along the way. They drafted well and had some of the young guys on the team make huge impacts this season. Will Butcher was wooed by a lot of teams, but Ray and John were able to get him to commit and signed him as a college free agent. They were able to sell him that the team was on the right trajectory and Will bought in. He was terrific all year long.
Will Butcher tells his tale of reaching the NHL, from his small-town roots to the moment he knew he was finally in the pros.
You also need a little luck along the way and having the No. 1 overall pick helped. Nico Hischier was everything as advertised and hasn’t disappointed.
To top it all off, you usually need a star to help you get into the playoffs and that was the stated goal from the start. Taylor Hall stepped up and carried them out of losing streaks during the season.
Taylor Hall reflects on the Devils' 2-1 win over the Maple Leafs and talks about the long journey he took with his teammates to get to the postseason.
Then you had the veterans like Travis Zajac and Andy Greene, the guys who have the playoff experience and were the last remnants from the team that went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012. It had to be a long wait for them and both of those guys were terrific. They really showed a lot of leadership, especially down the stretch.
MSGNetworks.com: Let’s look ahead to the Devils’ first-round opponent, the Lightning. They were the best team in the Eastern Conference and are considered one of the top contenders for the Stanley Cup this year. The Devils are considered the underdog in this series, but they managed to sweep Tampa in the regular season series. Does that mean anything going into the series?
Ken Daneyko: I don’t think it means a whole lot, to be honest. Certainly, the media is going to look at the regular season matchups and the success the Devils had against Tampa. But every game was tight and the Lightning had plenty of shots in those games. The Devils’ goaltending was outstanding in those games.
The one advantage the regular season record does give for the Devils is that their young guys won’t be overly awed by the occasion. It shows them that if they compete and play to the best of their ability, they’ve got a chance. If they had gotten blown out every night, they could have been overwhelmed.
A seven-game series is a whole other animal. You’re seeing a team every night and being capable of beating them four times is a challenge. Tampa Bay is first in the Eastern Conference for a reason and they were one of the preseason favorites to get to the Stanley Cup Final. It’s going to be a heck of a challenge for the Devils, but these guys have said they’re not here to be a Cinderella team. They want to go out there, compete and let the chips fall where they may.
We’ve seen it so many times in the NHL during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, there always seems like there are more upsets than there are in other sports. That’s what makes it exciting for every fan base. The Devils will go into this series understanding that they’re big underdogs, and rightfully so. Tampa Bay is that good. But the Devils have a puncher’s chance if they play together and compete like they have all year long.
MSGNetworks.com: One of the key matchups in this series will be how Travis Zajac’s line does against Steven Stamkos’ line. You mention in an earlier Q&A this season how the Zajac line was able to contain Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov back in March. How important will that be to the outcome of this series?
Ken Daneyko: Zajac’s line was really good in the final games of the season, no matter who they played. Whether it was the Maple Leafs, the Penguins or the Lightning, those guys were able to negate the opposing team’s top players somewhat.
You know those top guys are going to get their looks, chances and points, especially guys like Kucherov and Stamkos. But Zajac’s line was able to neutralize the other team’s top line by not just sitting back and defending. They were able to chip in with key goals of their own. Noesen, Zajac and Coleman spent a lot of time in the offensive zone. Any time you have the other team’s top line spending time in the defensive zone, it can get frustrating. It wasn’t just about meeting them at the red line or their own blue line and trying to make them weave their way through.
The best way to defend at times is having offensive zone time, to cycle and do all those things. They’re going to have a big say in this series, there’s no doubt in my mind. For the Devils to upset the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Zajac-Coleman-Noesen line is really going to have to get the job done.
And Tampa is deep, so it’s not just about Kucherov and Stamkos. They have a lot of guys that are very capable, so everyone in the lineup is going to have to do their job.
MSGNetworks.com: How much do you think the Devils are relishing this underdog role? They’ve adopted this philosophy of “The Devils vs. Everybody.” Does that fit into this series? It seems like all the pressure is on Tampa.
Ken Daneyko: From the outside looking in, there isn’t any pressure because no one expects the Devils to beat the Lightning. They’re the underdog for a reason. Having said that, you put pressure on yourself in your own dressing room and that’s what these guys have done all year long. That’s why they’ve been successful this season – they believe in themselves. They believe that they can compete with anybody by playing their game and doing all the little things they’ve done all season long.
The Devils want to be a team that can make some noise in the playoffs. That remains to be seen, but first and foremost is believing in yourself and competing every night. That’s what Coach Hynes and his staff have gotten the team to do.