Game three ended with some posturing by both teams and a bevy of misconducts being awarded to them. The narrative entering game four was about who would be intimidated and who would move past it. After a chippy and close-checking game, the Tampa Bay Lightning emerged victorious with a 3-1 win to take a stranglehold over the series.
Tampa Bay couldn’t ask for a better start to the game than a power-play within the first minute. The bad thing about this failed opportunity was that they only managed one dangerous chance before the Devils’ penalty kill forced the Lightning to reset out of the offensive zone often. Regardless, Tampa Bay applied pressure on New Jersey in the offensive zone and created turnovers. However, whenever they did get a shot on net, Cory Schneider was there to shut the door down.
Tampa Bay’s aggressiveness would bite them as Alex Killorn was sent off for hooking, and to make matters worse Cedric Paquette made it a 5-on-3 during the penalty kill with another horrid penalty (he had no business putting his stick near Hall’s skates there). As the Devils have done before, they converted on the 5-on-3 as Kyle Palmieri one-timed it past Andrei Vasilevskiy to give the Devils the lead (this was also the first time in the series where New Jersey scored first).
The Lightning managed to kill the second penalty, which continued their strong play with a man down (5-on-3 notwithstanding) but struggled to alleviate the pressure New Jersey was applying once play returned to 5-on-5. Fortunately, all it took was a quick transition play to get Tampa Bay back into the game.
Nico Hischier, for some reason, made a terrible pass in the offensive zone that was intended for Palmieri but was intercepted by J.T. Miller (literally, if Hischier had just looked before passing he could’ve avoided this turnover). Miller skated the puck into the neutral zone before passing it to Steven Stamkos. Stamkos entered the offensive zone with speed and left a drop pass for a trailing Nikita Kucherov. Kucherov recovered the puck and then saucer passed it to Miller, who was streaking down the left wing. Miller drove towards the net and roofed a shot past Schneider to time the game and give the Lightning some life. On replay, Schneider played this well, but Miller put it in the one spot that Schneider couldn’t get to.
Just a few minutes later, Tampa Bay thought they had taken the lead after Braydon Coburn entered the offensive zone and set up a screen for Cory Conacher’s shot that beat Schneider. However, New Jersey challenged the goal and it was overturned due to Paquette being offside (Paquette is now the reason for two goals against and a goal being overturned). It was the right call, no quarrels there. Paquette was a good couple feet offside by the time Coburn entered the zone.
Tampa Bay wouldn’t be deterred, however, as their forecheck forced turnovers and generated chances moving forward. They would be rewarded as Kucherov scored to make it 2-1 shortly after Conacher’s overturned goal. After Schneider knocked aside a Stamkos shot, Kucherov recovered the puck along the left-wing boards and proceeded to rim it along the boards. Stamkos then recovered it on the right-wing boards before passing it to Miller at the point. Miller fed a pass to Coburn across the zone. Coburn glided down the left-wing boards and threw it towards the slot where Kucherov was positioning himself. The puck bounced between Kucherov and Damon Severson before settling in front of the Russian sniper. Kucherov immediately fired it on net and beat Schneider high to the far side to give Tampa Bay the lead 2-1.
The remainder of the first period was a mess. Hits, penalties, scrums, angry hockey players, and controversy all followed. The entire situation started due to Kucherov’s hit on Sami Vatanen (which took the defender out of the game). Kucherov wasn’t penalized for the hit, and there was a raucous and angry protest from the Devils bench because of it. As of this moment, it is unclear if the Department of Player Safety will take any action on Kucherov, but this is what I saw: Kucherov clearly lined Vatanen up for a hit.
The initial contact was the shoulder (if you can't see that then I don’t know what to tell you), now, Vatanen’s head definitely snaps back from the force of the hit (which is not a headshot, I don’t know how people do not understand this). The angle that shows the hit from Kucherov’s back shows Kucherov hitting the shoulder (and to whomever said it was an elbow, you’re an idiot), but it can be interpreted that he clipped the head.
The front angle doesn’t show anything definitive either. So, in regards to this narrative that it was a “headshot”, no it wasn’t. Conversely, Kucherov does leave his feet for the hit and this, in my opinion, should’ve been charging. We’ll see what the DoPS has to say about it, but you can guarantee that hot takes of people who can’t differentiate the angle will be “wonderful”. It was a penalty, but not dirty.
To inflame the situation even more was Killorn committing a boarding penalty a few minutes later. This was textbook, Killorn was properly penalized for that. My issue with that play was that Killorn didn’t need to follow through on that hit. He clearly saw numbers and just leveled the Devils player. All he had to do was put his hip into him and it wouldn’t have caused an issue. This was a needless penalty. Tampa Bay killed the penalty.
The ugliness continued as resident big man Brian Boyle did Brian Boyle things to get his team an edge. Don’t complain about Boyle. He’s literally doing the same thing he did in New York, Tampa Bay, and Toronto. That’s his game. Yes, he is skilled for a big man and endearing, but let’s not disillusion ourselves about what kind of player Boyle is; the nastiness is a part of his game, you love it when he’s on your team and hate it when he isn’t.
After the scrum, Tampa received a power-play to end the period and would enter the second with the man advantage.
The Lightning failed to convert on the power-play and didn’t generate much pressure from it. New Jersey came right back after the man-advantage and pressured the Lightning in their zone. There were a few chances during this point that were harrowing for Tampa Bay, but Vasilevskiy held the fort down, in addition to the defense clearing the zone consistently.
The remaining first half of the second period saw both teams control play, but neither converted on their chances. Tampa Bay had the more dangerous opportunities compared to New Jersey, but both goaltenders were brick walls. The back half of the period was spent on special teams as both teams split power-plays with two apiece. Outside of that, Tampa Bay had the edge once the second period closed, but New Jersey was still firmly in the game.
Entering the third period, the Lightning had to play a simple game moving forward. Limit the penalties, pressure New Jersey’s defense, and clear out Vasilevskiy’s crease. Early on, the Lightning struggled with New Jersey’s pressure (and the Devils were clearly giving everything they had to pin Tampa Bay in their zone), but as the period progressed they neutralized the Devils’ forecheck and repeatedly kept them to the outside of the faceoff circles.
Encouraging doesn’t properly describe Tampa Bay’s third period play. After weathering an early furious charge by the Devils, the Lightning effectively suffocated New Jersey to close out the game. This has been indicative throughout the series. Tampa Bay has repeatedly given New Jersey space on the periphery of the offensive zone to box them out of the slot. It’s worked very well through the first four games and as long as Tampa Bay double teams Taylor Hall, the Devils ability to generate offense is severely hampered.
Kucherov would net his second goal of the game on an empty-net with a little over a minute left as Tampa Bay put a headlock on the series with a 3-1 lead.
Game five is back in Tampa on Saturday at 3pm. We’ll see if the Lightning can close out the Devils.
You all know how much I’ve lambasted the penalty kill this season. It was bad in the regular season and heading into this series I stated numerous times (in articles and the podcast) that Tampa Bay will die on it if they let it. So far, they’ve only allowed one goal during a standard penalty kill and two on 5-on-3’s. Outside of that, the penalty has been a rock that this team has fed off. They are still a little too passive at times, but they’ve done a much better job clearing the zone and winning puck battles along the boards. I’d like to see them become a little more aggressive (especially at the point), but if this is the system that works and limits goals against then I’ll take it.
I’ve lauded Vasilevskiy all season and even dove into his workload and how it will affect him moving forward (I was one of the few who wasn’t worried about it). Vasilevskiy has done nothing except be a wall for Tampa Bay in this series. Tonight simply magnified his play due to the goals against, but he currently has a 0.936 save percentage with a goals against average of 2.25 (NHL doesn’t have the updated stats so I added tonight’s stats with his overall stats for this postseason). He’s been spectacular for the Lightning and the team is clearly playing confident in front of him. If Vasilevskiy can maintain this high level of play moving forward then Tampa Bay won’t be an easy out.
Stop taking them. For the love of god, please stop taking so many penalties. New Jersey is a good power-play team. They can load up the man-advantage with a pretty impressive array of players, and giving them so many chances with those players on the ice is dangerous. At 5-on-5, Tampa Bay has controlled this series and it hasn’t been necessarily close. The Lightning might be able to get by the Devils with this style, but they won’t survive against Boston or Toronto in the second round.
Let’s hear what you have to say!