NEWARK, NJ — Tampa Bay forward Nikita Kucherov was mad after his team lost Game 3 in undisciplined fashion on Monday. On Wednesday, he and the Lightning got even, moving the team one step away from advancing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Kucherov, along with continuing his stellar start to the postseason with two goals and an assist, provided a physical presence with a momentum-changing open-ice hit in the first period as Tampa Bay defeated the Devils 3-1 in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs first round series, taking a three-games-to-one series lead in the process.
The two goals were Kucherov’s third and fourth against the Devils in the series, giving him nine points in just four games. Part of his motivation going into tonight was the Lightning blowing a third-period lead in a 5-2 loss on Monday in which Tampa Bay committed a rash of penalties in the final 20 minutes that allowed New Jersey back into the game.
“I didn’t like the way we had so many penalties last game, giving up so many opportunities on the power play for them. Especially for me, I was pissed off and didn’t want to lose,” said Kucherov, who is now tied with Sidney Crosby for the playoff scoring lead with those nine points.
Tampa Bay fell behind on a power play goal by Kyle Palmieri at 8:23 of the first period but, soon after, Kucherov put his stamp on the game as the Lightning scored two goals in a 3:32 span to take the lead. On an odd-man rush, Kucherov, after taking a feed from teammate Steven Stamkos at the blue line, made an incisive pass down low to J.T. Miller, who beat Devils goaltender Cory Schneider with a wrist shot at 11:30 of the first period to tie the game.
At the 15:02 mark, Kucherov went from provider to finisher, pouncing on a loose puck in the slot and sending a shot top shelf past Schneider to give the Lightning a 2-1 lead. It stayed on that scoreline until Kucherov added an empty net goal with 1:08 remaining in the third period to seal the win and give Tampa Bay the opportunity to close out the series at home on Saturday.
“‘Kuch’ tonight flexed his muscles,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “He’s completely dynamic on the power play, but tonight he was, I thought all around, the best player on the ice tonight. When you’re playing both sides of the puck, you’re contributing offensively, defensively, you’re physical, you’re engaged, he did nothing but lift our team. He’s a big part of why we won tonight.”
As far as the physical play is concerned from Kucherov, one play in particular was the focus of a lot of the Devils’ ire for the rest of the game, and may very well be the focus in the next couple of days of a review by the NHL Department of Player Safety. Late in the first period, and not long after his goal gave Tampa the lead, Kucherov laid out New Jersey defenseman Sami Vatanen with a body check, appearing initially to be a clean shoulder-to-shoulder hit. Vatanen stayed down, then, after getting back up, went directly into the locker room and did not return for the rest of the game.
After a discussion by the referees on the ice, no penalty was called. On the replay, Kucherov’s right shoulder did make contact with the head of Vatanen.
“I thought that was a heck of a hockey hit,” said Cooper. “The only thing that’s down about that is Vatanen got hurt, and I hope he’s OK and that there’s no injury there. There’s hitting in the game and it was a bang-bang play…to me, it was a good hit.”
Devils head coach John Hynes, seen screaming at the officials from the bench soon after the hit, continued to stew about the play after the game, but did not go into detail about his thoughts on the matter.
“I don’t have any comment on it,” said Hynes about the Kucherov hit after the game. “Does me no good getting into it.”
Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, named as one of the three Vezina Trophy finalists yesterday, made 27 saves in the game, including a couple on breakaway chances for the Devils – most notably on Patrick Maroon midway through the second period to keep the score at 2-1. Though the Lightning did give up a power play goal on a 5-on-3 when Palmieri scored for the Devils, Tampa killed off all five penalties in which it was just one man down.
Schneider made 34 saves for New Jersey, but the Devils’ offense struggled to mount sustained pressure in the Tampa zone after the Lightning took the lead, as New Jersey managed only five shots total in the second period despite the fact that it had two power plays in succession toward the latter stages of the period.
Game 5 is back at Amalie Arena in Tampa with a 3:00 PM puck drop.