NEWARK — Ride the lightning.
Tampa Bay, the No. 1 team in The HockeyClan NHL Power Rankings for the 25th week in a row, overcame an early deficit with a pair of goals from J.T. Miller and Nikita Kucherov 3:32 apart while Andrei Vasilevskiy stood tall with 27 saves as the Eastern Conference Champion Lightning fashioned a 3-1 triumph to take a 3-1 series lead in the first round best-of-seven against the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center Wednesday night.
After winning their first two games at home, the Lightning bolted back from a 5-2 loss on Monday to take a commanding lead in a series that will shift to Amalie Arena for Game 5 on Saturday with Tampa looking to clinch it on home ice.
Coming in with The League’s best power play this post-season (55.6%), Tampa Bay went 0-for-5 with the man-advantage but the top-seeded Lightning, seeking its second Stanley Cup and first since 2004, have shown a multitude of ways they can be dominant.
The line of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and J.T. Miller combined for three goals, four assists and a plus-9 — with all three of its goals coming at even-strength — while Vasilevskiy shook off an early goal from Kyle Palmieri and put up a wall in net.
“Obviously, we’re clicking on the power play with “V” and “Kuch” and “Killer,” but our line wanted to generate some 5-on-5 and we did tonight which was great,” Stamkos, the Lightning team captain, said. “We did a good job after scoring those goals early of shutting the guys down — I thought we played a great third period.”
After Palmieri lit the lamp on the power play 8:23 into the game sending the 16,514 in attendance at “The Rock” into a frenzy, it seemed New Jersey was poised to even the series. But Kucherov found a streaking Miller who made no mistake lifting one up and over Devils’ goalie Cory Schneider’s shoulder to knot the game up at 1-1 just 3:07 later.
“The way game is, it’s mental. It’s so physical there’s not much space,” Kucherov said. “For us, special teams, teamwork… I didn’t like the way we took so many penalties last game.”
Tampa Bay appeared to take their first lead of the game when Cory Conacher’s twisted wrister through traffic beat Schneider shortly after the ensuing faceoff, but the Devils challenged the play as off-sides and after a short review in Toronto, the goal was overturned.
The League’s number one offense with 290 goals during the regular season, the Lightning struck back 3:32 later when Kucherov — third in the NHL with 100 points during the season — took the game over.
The gritty Russian found a loose puck in front off a fortuitous bounce off Bradyon Coburn’s initial shot and beat Schneider in close to give Tampa a 2-1 lead before leveling Devils’ defenseman Sami Vatanen with a solid bodycheck.
New Jersey’s leader in ice time at 22:24 per game, Vatanen was limited to just 6:46 before Kucherov knocked him from the game. His absence was felt and Devils’ coach John Hynes provided no update on his status for Game 5.
“Anytime you see one of your top offensive players, one of the best in the league, offensively, hit a guy like that — that’s a big-time hit and that gave the group a spark,” Miller, thriving with his new linemates with a team-best 11 goals since being acquired at the NHL Trade Deadline in March, said. “It was a big part of that first period. When he’s involved, when he’s engaged, physically, it sends a message to the team.”
After surrendering the early goal, Vasilevskiy did not yield another halting 12 shots in the first period, including a couple of stellar saves on breakways from Travis Zajac, Patrick Maroon and Blake Coleman down the stretch to keep it a one-goal game.
Vasilevskiy denied 10 more shots in the third period before Kucherov scored his second of the game into an empty net with 1:08 remaining in regulation.
“He’s a Vezina candidate for a reason,” Hedman said. “He was unbelievable. He competes so hard. He wants to win every game and wants to be a difference maker and was again tonight. He gave us a chance to win, especially early on when they had some breakaways.”
The Devils certainly had their opportunities but converted just 1-for-6 with the man-advantage.
“Hindsight, you would always like to get more than a one-goal lead,” Devils forward Taylor Hall said. “I just thought as the night went on, our power play was a real drag on the group, and the guys on the power play, when you are not scoring and not producing, after seven power plays, it’s hard to play with confidence and it is hard to play with poise.”
Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who joined Miller in a blockbuster deal with the New York Rangers at the trade deadline, sees Miller’s confidence growing with every shift.
“It’s huge for him to see the confidence shown in him right away by the coaching staff to play in a role like that, play in front of the net on the power play, on the penalty kill, taking important faceoffs,” McDonagh said of Miller. “What more can you ask for? You get traded to a team that wants you and it’s a huge role he’s stepped in to.”
McDonagh sees a tremendous amount of potential on this Lightning squad which amassed a conference-best 113 points behind a 54-23-5 regular season record.
“You need to build that culture and belief,” McDonagh said. “I know I joined these guys late this year but they’ve won a lot of hockey games in a lot of different fashion. When you win a lot of different ways that’s a great sign. All the way through our lineup we’ve had guys score some big goals and play in different situations. We’ve got some good chemistry and a lot of confidence and whoever’s out there on the ice understands what’s expected.”
Zajac isn’t ready to count out the Devils just yet.
“We had to fight our way to get a spot in the playoffs when no one really believed in us,” Devils center Travis Zajac said, “and now we get to prove ourselves again and go into Tampa and worry about winning one game.”
Written by John Christian Hageny / @JCCSPORTS
Special to HockeyClan
Main Image: The Tampa Bay Lightning defend against the New Jersey Devils as the puck bounces past the right post in Game Four of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Prudential Center on April 18, 2018 in Newark, New Jersey. The Lightning defeated the Devils 3-1. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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