|Lightning aim for fifth straight win as they face Devils|
NEWARK, N.J. -- Last season, neither the Tampa Bay Lightning nor the New Jersey Devils reached the Stanley Cup playoffs.
However, two weeks into the 2017-18 season, both teams sit in first place in their divisions as they face off against one another Tuesday night at the Prudential Center.
For the Lightning (5-1-0), it is a quick trip back atop the standings, while for the Devils (4-1-0), this is rarified air for a club that finished last in the Eastern Conference a year ago and failed to reach the playoffs the past five years.
A 3-2 road win over the Detroit Red Wings on Monday extended the Lightning's winning streak to four games as they became the first team in the league to reach 10 points.
Though it is early in the season, the Lightning better resemble the team that reached the 2015 Stanley Cup Finals and 2016 Eastern Conference finals than the injury-ravaged squad that failed to take part in the 2017 postseason.
"We're just playing with a lot more urgency and a lot more responsibility, and that's why we've strung together some wins here," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said recently.
Superstar center Steven Stamkos, who was limited to 17 games because of a knee injury last year, is his old self, recording at least one point in all six games. He earned two assists on Monday and already has eight helpers and nine points to start the season.
Nikita Kucherov, a 40-goal scorer in Stamkos' absence in 2016-17, is also off to a blazing start. He scored twice against the Red Wings to become only the fourth player in the past 30 years to score a goal in each of the first six games of the season, joining a short list that includes Mario Lemieux, Keith Tkachuk and his team's current general manager, Steve Yzerman.
"It's just easy when you're out there with him," Stamkos said to nhl.com about Kucherov, who is second in the NHL with seven goals. "He's one of the best players in the league."
The Devils may not have the star power of the Lightning, but they did win their first three games this season, scoring 16 goals in the victories. After losing to the Washington Capitals 5-2 at home on Friday, the Devils rebounded the next night with a 3-2 road win over the New York Rangers.
Perhaps showing how much he expects from his team, coach John Hynes benched three of his key forwards for much of the Saturday victory. Pavel Zacha did not play the final 35 minutes and logged only 5:35 worth of ice time against the Rangers, while Jimmy Hayes played 6:56 and Marcus Johansson saw the least ice time of any player in the Devils' lineup (4:48).
Zacha and Johansson practiced with regular lines on Monday and will be in the lineup Tuesday. Hayes, however, split time on the third line with Stefan Noesen during practice. He could be a healthy scratch against the Lightning.
Hynes met with all three players on Monday to discuss precisely what his expectations are.
"It's always a difficult decision when you make a decision to sit a player or scratch a player," Hynes said. "You have to do what you think is right in certain situations. We had some really positive one-on-one meetings with all three of those players this morning. We discussed why and what needs to be better."
Despite his hardline stance with the three forwards, Hynes is pleased with the Devils' start to the season. New Jersey is tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets for first place in the Metropolitan Division. After scoring the fewest goals in the Eastern Conference two years running, the Devils have 21 goals already, tied for third most in the East.
Rookie Jesper Bratt leads the team with three goals, while defenseman Will Butcher, another first-year player, tops the Devils with eight points -- all of them assists, with five coming on the power play.
"He's got a lot of skill, he moves the puck well, and he's so smart out there," Devils alternate captain Taylor Hall said of Butcher. "He's brought a lot to our power play and our five-on-five. We need that on our back end."
Cory Schneider will start in goal for the Devils on Tuesday. The Lightning did not name a starting goalie as of late Monday. Andrei Vasilevskiy picked up the win at Detroit, stopping 29 of 31 shots.