Tampa Bay had a chance to win the Southeast Division heading into the final weekend of the regular season, but was pounded by Florida on Friday and beaten by Atlanta in a shootout Saturday to drop the Lightning to the seventh seed. Still, this team looked aimless early in the new year, and a fourth straight postseason trip is mostly a testament to the superlative seasons of Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and underappreciated defenseman Dan Boyle.
The Devils, meanwhile, enter the playoffs with the game's finest goalie, Martin Brodeur, and a new coach, GM Lou Lamoriello, who caused a stir when he fired Claude Julien with three games left in the regular season. For a team that often has epitomized dull, there never seems to be a dull moment in New Jersey. The issue for the Devils is whether they can find enough scoring to get by.
1. The Devils' sick bay. New Jersey enters the playoffs with uncertainty surrounding the status of top players such as Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez, Patrik Elias and John Madden. All missed considerable time in the second half of the season with varying injuries. They should be in the lineup when the series starts Thursday, but their durability and productivity will bear a close watch.
2. Patience, patience, patience. Over the past decade or more, the key to beating the Devils in the postseason has been patience. No matter who's standing behind the New Jersey bench, the team typically is disciplined and methodical in its approach. Opponents must be the same way. The Devils ranked first in the NHL in fewest penalties taken per game (10.1 minutes), so beating them five-on-five will be crucial for the Bolts.
3. Scoring, anyone? The Devils are the lowest-scoring team in the postseason. Want some perspective? The conference's No. 1 seed, Buffalo, scored almost 100 more goals than the Devils. With the aforementioned top point producers still hobbled, it'll be up to young guns Zach Parise (31 goals to lead the team) and Travis Zajac (17 as a rookie) to shoulder more of the load. Are they up to the challenge?
4. The Brodeur factor. Effervescent Brodeur is coming off a sensational season that saw him establish a new record for wins in a season (48). He finished third in save percentage and goals-against average while playing more than any other netminder in the league. With Brodeur having played in 78 games, the theory is that, at some point, he will begin to wear down. It's more wishful thinking on the part of opponents than a real theory, though. Even if it does happen, don't expect it to happen in the first round. His mere presence between the pipes changes a team's tactical approach to the game, not to mention its psyche.
5. Who's minding the net? The Devils enjoy the ultimate in netminding stability with Brodeur, but the picture is a little bit fuzzier for the Bolts. Coach John Tortorella isn't one to coddle his players and has been known to call out any and all, including his goaltenders, a habit that has not endeared him to the netminding fraternity. Johan Holmqvist, in his first season in the NHL after starring internationally, has supplanted inconsistent Marc Denis as the Lightning starter. Still, Holmqvist didn't inspire all that much confidence with his last outing, giving up four goals on 12 shots against Florida. Expect 6-foot-3 Holmqvist to be on a short leash, even if he did manage to compile an impressive 27-15-3 record.
• Vincent Lecavalier vs. Martin Brodeur: There are many who believe Lecavalier's name should be on the Hart Trophy ballot as the league's most valuable player. You can bet Brodeur's will be. Both are the engines that drive their respective hockey machines. Lecavalier had his long-awaited breakout season, winning the Maurice Richard Trophy for most goals (52) and finishing third in NHL scoring with 108 points. The Devils, on paper, enjoy a massive edge in goaltending. It's up to Lecavalier to make sure that edge doesn't turn the series.
• Devils: With Gionta limited to just 62 games because of injury and captain Elias slumping to 69 points, Parise emerged as a go-to guy with a team-best 31 goals. Scott Gomez slumped from a career-best 33 goals a season ago to 13 this season.
• Lightning: Among defensemen, only Montreal's Sheldon Souray (26) had more goals than Boyle, who finished fourth among all defensemen with a career-best 63 points. Boyle played all 82 games for the Bolts and finished second for total ice time in the regular season. Vaclav Prospal registered just five goals in his last 25 games and finished with 14 total goals and a minus-24.
Given the Devils' injury problems and the attendant paucity of scoring, it might not matter that the Lightning have the worst penalty-killing record of any playoff team. Everyone says goaltending trumps scoring in the playoffs. We take the contrary view here and like the Lightning's superior offense to carry the day. Tampa Bay in seven.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.