NHL Playoffs 2018: How do Devils slow down Nikita Kucherov and the Lightning’s top line?

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The Devils return to the NHL playoffs on Thursday, when they visit the Tampa Bay Lightning for Game 1 of their first-round series.

Forcing the top line of the Lightning to play defense could be the best way for the Devils to slow them down in the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

The trio of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and J.T. Miller make up the top line for the Lightning’s offense — one that scored a league-best 3.54 goals per game in the regular season.

Whenever the Devils have the chance, they’ll counter that line with their own defensive stoppers: Travis Zajac, Blake Coleman and Stefan Noesen. 

When the Devils’ top defensive line is at its best, they’re putting pressure on opponents in the Devils’ offensive zone. The more time they spend there, the less chances opposing top lines can generate.

“They’re good skaters, but it’s just staying above the puck, making defensive reads first as far as not diving in on plays, taking angle and still being aggressive,” Coleman said. “We want to play in the offensive zone as much as we can. That’s the best way to limit talented players. Make them defend.”

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Regardless of how well the Devils defend, the Lightning’s top line will still generate its share of chances. 

Kucherov finished as one of three NHL players to break 100 points this season. Stamkos would have led many teams with his 86 points, while Miller finished with 18 points in 19 games after being traded by the Rangers to the Lightning.

Their combination of size, speed and skill makes the three particularly difficult.

“They’re all kind of different players. All very versatile,” Coleman said. “I think any high-end skill like that, the best way to limit them is take away their time and space, not give them time to see the ice and see the plays they’re going to make. If you’re going to get beat by them, it’s got to be a pretty incredible play.”

Playing against the top line of an opponent will be nothing new for the Zajac, Coleman and Noesen. The three clicked as the Devils’ shutdown line during the second half of the season.

Now entering a best-of-seven series against one opponent, three three will have to continuously adjust and battle beyond one game.

“They’re very competitive. When you look at them, I think they read well off each other,” Devils coach John Hynes said of the Lightning’s top line. “They all can score. They’re deadly snipers. When they have time and space, when they turn a play, you’re going to have to get saves off that line, but also you have to be aware of them.”

Chris Ryan may be reached at cryan@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisRyan_NJ. Find NJ.com Devils on Facebook.

 





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