Really, when it comes to New Jersey’s playoff hockey fortunes, it’s all about Taylor Hall, the club’s one and only phenom.
Sure, there are a ton of other factors but in the end, as Hall goes, so go the Devils.
As for evaluating the precise outcome of the Devils-Lightning series, which opens tonight in Tampa Bay, you can get a migraine of confusing facts.
On the one hand, New Jersey is 3-for-3 in wins over the Bolts this season, otherwise known as batting 1.000.
On the other hand, coach John Hynes‘ sextet was the last seed in the Eastern Conference; the Garden Staters’ foe was first seed.
So what does that tell you? The Lightning’s 113 points topped New Jersey’s 97, representing a meaningful 16-point bulge in favor of the home club.
In any “Who’s Going To Win?” debate, any supporter can defeat the other simply by quoting from the classic book, “How To Lie With Statistics.”
Beyond the numbers, it will all come down to ice level and how well the best, most experienced players show their mettle. You can start with Hall and the Bolts best, defenseman Victor Hedman, an octopus on skates.
“When he’s on his game, Hedman can dominate on all parts of the ice,” said MSG Networks Devils analyst Ken Daneyko, a New Jersey backliner for 20 seasons.
Meanwhile, Hall is a shoo-in for Hart Trophy candidacy as the league’s most valuable player. His 39 goals and 93 points — sixth-highest point total in the league — automatically make him a threat to the Bolts.
Ryan Dixon, who authored a comprehensive profile of Hall for Sportsnet, gives the Devil five out of five stars.
“The way Hall plays,” Dixon explained, “there are times you’d be tempted to give up half your team for 2010’s first-overall pick.”
Since the Bolts won’t give The Maven their secret anti-Hall blueprints, I can only go by the Tampa Bay verbiage.
“We have to respect Hall’s speed,” warned ex-Ranger Ryan McDonagh, now a stalwart of the Bolts backline. “He can blow by you.”
McDonagh isn’t blowing smoke either, nor is Lightning captain Steve Stamkos who confidently argues that his club has one distinct edge on the visitors — experience.
“New Jersey has guys playing their first playoff game,” said Stamkos. “Hopefully we can use that to our advantage.”
The oft-injured Stamkos is expected to play in the opener but he openly confessed that his battered physique ain’t what it used to be.
“My body,” he allowed, “will never be 100 percent again.”
Virtually injury-free, the Devils are playing with house money when one considers that only the ultimate optimists — and John Hynes’ relatives — figured them to even make the post-season.
“Nobody expected us to be here this quick,” said general manager Ray Shero. “We’re young and we’re fast.”
Speed just might be the antidote to Hedman’s heady style. If the Lightning’s premier backliner is forced to play more than a 25-minute game, his tank could be emptied a lot faster than coach Jon Cooper can refill it.
Hall isn’t the only Kid Lightning on New Jersey’s top line. Rookie center Nico Hischier — top pick in the 2017 Draft and the only Devil to have played in all 82 games — has been an eye-opener. Right wing Kyle Palmieri owns a V-8 motor as well.
Coach Hynes labels the Swiss-born Hischier “level-headed” and very coachable.
“If I talk to him about certain things,” Hynes explained, “Nico understands. I’m impressed how he handles it but he’s not going to be perfect all the time.”
Writing for NJ Advanced Media, Chris Ryan calls Hischier “a star in the making; the young face of the franchise for an organization that’s been looking for an identity.”
A sidebar rivalry features a “Battle Of The Coaches.” On the one hand, Cooper has experienced considerable playoff series. By contrast, this is Hynes’ debut. Bolts players have an interesting take on the seemingly Cool Hand Coop.
“He has intensity,” asserted ex-Ranger J.T. Miller, who also played for John Tortorella, “but it’s a different kind of intensity. Coop’s teams always have been hard to play against. Make a mistake and it ends up in the back of the net.”
Hynes is a “player’s coach” — communicative with his skaters and as intense as any NHL mentor.
Were it not for Gerard Gallant’s extraordinary work in Las Vegas, Hynes would be a candidate to win the Jack Adams Award as best coach. Cooper also rates Kudos for reviving his club after a dismal 2016-17.
Cooper: “We know the Devils earned their way here and Keith Kinkaid‘s goaltending has been unreal. Their supporting cast believes, and that’s why they’re a dangerous team.”
Since taking over in the homestretch, Kinkaid metamorphosed from ordinary to superlative between the New Jersey pipes. But he’s never been in an NHL playoff game, which means his reactions bear serious watching.
Likewise, the Bolts’ Andrei Vasilevskiy has enjoyed limited playoff experience: a total of a dozen games including seven starts. He produced a 2.85 goals against average and .920 save percentage.
But, in replacing Ben Bishop, Andrei became the Bolts No. 1 workhorse this season, leading the NHL with 44 wins and eight shutouts. Over 65 games — 64 starts — he finished with a 2.62 GAA and .920 save percentage.
Originally groomed simply to back up starter Cory Schneider, Kinkaid took over after Schneider’s late-January groin injury and became a hot item right through the toughest run of the season — 16-3-1 since February 24.
“He’s definitely playing the best that I’ve seen him in his career, and obviously at an opportune time,” Devils center and playoff veteran Travis Zajac said. “He’s one of the main reasons we’re here today, and we’re going to need him moving forward.”
Fair enough, but if New Jersey is to pull off an upset and advance to the second round, it will be up to the club’s MVP, Hall, to deliver big-time.
“Every time Taylor’s got the puck,” Zajac commented, “he’s not trying to slow down to make a play, he’s speeding up. There are only a few NHLers who can really do that, and he’s one of them.”
Humble to a fault, Hall skates the low-key route.“This is not just about me. There are so many guys on this team who don’t get credit for what they do.”
He could be talking about Miles Wood — son of ex-NHLer Randy Wood — who has honed his previously peripatetic game to sharpness.
“Wood has size and speed,” said Daneyko. “He’s come a long way from his play last season. When Woody is on his game, he can be a real threat.”
OK, but when all the chips are down it’s going to be Hall — more than any Devil — who will define this club’s future in the first round.
Listening to Hall, an onlooker senses that Taylor has embraced this hockey club, its drive, its ethic and, most of all, swears by his coach who stresses 200 by 85 feet attention to detail.
“There’s a lot of accountability,” Hall concluded, “not just for me but for the whole group. The offensive guys can do their thing but we have to backcheck and do everything on that side of the puck.”
It’s a tall order going up against the best in the East, but in the end, there should be no confusion about the Devils; they’ll go as far as Hall can carry them!