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|TAMPA Kevin Hogan Jersey , Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning earned a division title by a single point on the final day of the regular season, but even the top seed in the Eastern Conference only did them so much of a favor.
The Lightning open the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs on Thursday against a New Jersey Devils team that swept them in three regular-season meetings, presenting a real challenge as Tampa Bay hopes to start a deep postseason run.
New Jersey is in the playoffs for the first time since losing in the 2012 finals, so many of the Devils players are new to the energy and urgency of playoff hockey. The Lightning don’t want to make that out to be too tremendous an advantage.
“Experience is what you make of it,” said Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper, whose team missed the playoffs last year but made the finals and conference finals in 2015 and 2016. “Naturally, it’s good to have gone through some of these situations before, but I look at our team in 2015, we didn’t really have much experience and we were able to get through.”
The Devils have had a playoff mindset for weeks, battling for the last wild card in the East Deion Sanders Jersey , and coach John Hynes said that intensity makes for a natural carry-over to the actual playoffs ahead.
“The fact that we were able to play that type of hockey, really had to push and play our way in has strengthened our belief,” Hynes said. “You can’t match the intensity of the playoffs in the regular season, just because it’s a little more physical and a little more tightly contested and everybody’s all in on every game.”
All three regular-season meetings were one-goal games, the first going to New Jersey in a shootout. The Lightning have a healthy respect for Devils left winger Taylor Hall, who leads the team with 39 goals and 54 assists.
Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov matched Hall’s 39 goals, but he has a much stronger scoring complement around him. New Jersey has only one player with 25 or more goals, while Kucherov has Brayden Point (32), Steven Stamkos (27) and rookie Yanni Gourde (25), making them harder to defend with threats on multiple lines.
The Lightning have the league’s top scoring offense Ryan Kerrigan Jersey , but also have a vulnerability on the penalty kill, where they ranked 27th in the league, stopping only 76 percent of opponents’ power plays. New Jersey’s power play ranked 10th in the NHL, and presents another threat, having scored an NHL-best 12 short-handed goals.
Both goalies are relatively young and inexperienced in the playoffs — Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, still just 23, has a 4-5 record in 12 postseason appearances, while New Jersey’s Keith Kinkaid, 28, will be making his playoff debut.
The series begins in Tampa — where the Lightning tied for third-most home wins with 29 this season — with games on Thursday and Saturday before shifting to New Jersey for the next two games.
Stephen Curry resumed full practice with contact and could play for the defending champion Golden State Warriors as soon as Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday night against New Orleans. Curry looked strong as he practiced Thursday wearing a protective brace over his sprained left knee Marshall Faulk Jersey , which has sidelined him since the injury March 23 – the same day he returned from a six-game absence because of a hurt right ankle.
Coach Steve Kerr is calling Curry questionable for Saturday. That could change if the two-time NBA MVP still feels fine Friday and is fine after one more day of full practice before the Pelicans visit Oracle Arena to begin the best-of-seven series.
”Steph practiced at 100 percent, he did everything, he looked good,” Kerr said. ”What we have to do is see how his body responds the rest of the day, put him through another practice tomorrow. I think he needs to string together two good days but it was very positive today. … I think it’s been coming along pretty well. When we were in San Antonio and I was asked a question about how he was doing, I think I was able to give an answer, `He’s doing great but we haven’t ramped him up yet.’ I think today was an important day because it’s the first time he’s actually gone live action and he was allowed to go through practice. And he appears fine.”
Curry went through his usual shooting work with Kevin Durant from various spots after practice, cutting and exhibiting his fancy footwork and dribbling skills. The Warriors have played well without their floor leader, eliminating the San Antonio Spurs in Game 5 of the first-round series with a 99-91 win Tuesday night.
The Pelicans will present a different, faster pace for the Warriors Daryl Johnston Jersey , so getting Curry back to push the ball and direct the offense would be important. Andre Iguodala, the 2015 NBA Finals MVP, started in the first round in his place while Quinn Cook handled point guard duties late in the regular season with Curry out.
”We’re excited. I know he’s very eager to play,” said Klay Thompson. ”He’s a competitor, so sitting out I know kills him. We can’t wait for him to get back whenever that is.”
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