The Tampa Bay Lightning are off to a strong start in the NHL playoffs.
The top seed in the Eastern Conference got early goals from four players – none of them named Nikita Kucherov or Steven Stamkos – before holding off the New Jersey Devils for a 5-2 victory Thursday night in Game 1 of the first-round series.
Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Yanni Gourde scored, helping the Lightning build a 3-0 lead that New Jersey trimmed to one goal before Alex Killorn and Kucherov, who added an empty-netter with 1:12 remaining, finished off the win.
Taylor Hall scored an unassisted goal in the second period, then assisted on Travis Zajac’s power-play goal that trimmed the Devils’ deficit to 3-2 midway through third against Andrei Vasilievskiy, who had 29 saves for Tampa Bay.
Killorn’s shot over the glove of goalie Kevin Kincaid’s glove restored a two-goal lead before Kucherov, who led the Lightning with 100 points this season, ensured there would be no comeback.
Game 2 is Saturday at Amalie Arena.
The Devils won all three meetings between the teams during the regular season, with each game decided by one goal.
Kinkaid entered his first career playoff game as one of the hottest goalies in the league, going 7-0-1 over his last eight starts to help New Jersey grab its first playoff berth since the Devils reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 2012.
The Lightning, on the other hand, have been driven all season by failing to make the playoffs last spring after making deep runs previous two years.
With Kucherov and Stamkos leading the way, Tampa Bay paced the NHL in scoring and Vasilevskiy set a franchise record and tied for the league lead with 44 victories in his first season as a No. 1 goaltender.
But after reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 2015 and coming within one victory of a return trip two years ago, this season ultimately will be judged on whether the Lightning can put together another strong bid to win it all.
While the Devils did a nice job of containing the high-scoring Kucherov and Stamkos, Palat, Johnson, Killorn and Gourde, who set a Lightning rookie record with 25 goals this season, showed why it’s so difficult to totally shut down Tampa Bay’s offence.
Notes: Stamkos returned to Tampa Bay’s lineup after missing the final three games of the regular season with a lower body injury. ... It’s the third time the Devils and Lightning have met in the playoffs. New Jersey won both previous series, advancing in the 2003 Eastern Conference semifinals in five games and ending a 2007 quarter-final matchup in six. ... Zajac and captain Andy Greene are the only players remaining on New Jersey’s roster from the Devils’ 2012 post-season run.
The Canadian Press