Nobody said this playoff thing would be easy.
The Devils lost 3-1 at Prudential Center in game four of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series. This puts them down in the series 3-1 as well, heading into game five in Tampa.
More importantly, they lost their best defenseman, Sami Vatanen, to injury. He was hit with an elbow to the head during a hit by the Bolts’ Nikita Kucherov and immediately left down the tunnel. There was no penalty call on the play. Officially, it was listed as an upper body injury and he did not return. There is a possibility that he could miss game five, putting the Devils in a rough situation. The physical play spilled over from game three and it has taken a toll on both teams.
Another factor for the Devils was special teams. They went 1-for-6, scoring their lone goal with the man advantage with six total shots. And while the power play improved, so did the Devils’ penalty kill. The Devils had been killing penalties at a 44-percent clip, good for last of all the teams in the postseason. Tonight, however, the Devils went 0-for-5 keeping the high-powered Lightning PP to eight shots on net. It was a great improvement and helped keep the game close.
New Jersey went with the same lineup from game three. Scratched were Joey Anderson, Christoph Bertschy, Jesper Bratt, Brian Gibbons, Michael Grabner, Jimmy Hayes, Michael Kapla, Eddie Lack, Nick Lappin, Michael McLeod, Mirco Mueller, Blake Pietila, Kevin Rooney, Steven Santini and Brian Strait. One of the d-men, likely Mueller, should slot in on Saturday should Vatanen not be able to return.
Tampa was playing again without Ryan Callahan (upper body) and Tyler Johnson was a game time decision with an undisclosed injury. He would play.
In goal, Cory Schneider went for the Devils, stopping 34 of 36 shots (Tampa added an empty netter late in the game) and playing extremely well. However, he was being opposed by a 2018 Vezina Trophy finalist and it showed. Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 27 of 28 Devils shots in the game and was, at times, the best player on the ice for Tampa (which is saying something considering their star power). At times, the Devils could not even get shots through to him, Tampa was clogging the shooting lanes that well.
Officiating the game were referees Wes McCauley and Tim Peel. This was significant, according to MSG’s Steve Cangialosi, because McCauley was named the best ref in the NHL by the players and Peel is known for calling a lot of penalties. The league obviously wanted to keep things under control after game three saw 100 minutes of misconduct penalties assessed when the dust settled on that one. They showed that they were not fooling around when Taylor Hall was nabbed for a hooking call just 34 seconds into the game.
Some interesting facts to get to before we delve more into game four. Game three was Cory Schneider’s first playoff win since April 18, 2012 when he was with Vancouver. That was over the Los Angeles Kings – the eventual Stanley Cup champs who beat the Devils to take home the hardware. Also, I read somewhere that game three’s win ensured that the Devils are the oldest NHL club to have never been swept in a playoff series (44 and counting). Nashville has not been swept in 17 tries (and counting) and Vegas in one (a record that they could be adding a lot to in the coming weeks). Also, Devils fans booed Victor Hedman every time he touched the puck in game four, reacting to his cheap stick work on Nico Hischier in game three.
Also, the Devils had a special fan in attendance. Patrick Warburton, Puddy himself, was at Prudential Center to help rally the fans. He was in full facepaint and waving a rally towel. He also took off his jersey to reveal a “D” painted on his chest. It was a reference to the classic Seinfeld episode and it got the fans ready to go.
Things would ramp up even more in the first period when Alex Killorn went off for hooking at the 7:47 mark. The Devils were on their first power play of the game, but were about to go up 5-on-3 when Cedric Paquette was called for tripping Hall as Hall entered the Tampa zone on a rush.
The Devils would convert on this one when Kyle Palmieri scored his first playoff goal as a Devil at 8:23 from Will Butcher and Hall. Travis Zajac won a faceoff in the Lightning zone to Palmieri along the far boards. After retrieving it in the corner, he passed to Butcher at the point. Butcher went to Hall down at the top of the near faceoff circle. He passed back to Butcher at the point. Butcher saw Palmieri set up at the far faceoff dot. He saucered one to him and Palmieri let rip a one-timer that beat Vasilevskiy cleanly to give the Devils the early 1-0 lead.
But that was it for the New Jersey scoring on the night. But they were not without chances. First Zajac was stopped on a breakaway just moments after the goal still on the power play. Blake Coleman would be stopped on a breakaway a few minutes after the Zajac one.
Tampa tied things up at 11:30 when JT Miller scored from Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos. Moments after that, with 7:43 remaining in the first, the Lightning had seemingly taken the lead when Cory Conacher scored.
But Devils coach John Hynes issued a coach’s challenge asserting that Tampa was offside on the play. The replay was conclusive that he was correct and the goal was called back. The game remained tied at one.
The Lightning would take the lead for real and permanently at the 15:02 mark of the first when Kucherov whacked at a rebound, scoring on a second chance from Baydon Coburn and Miller. That made it 2-1 Lightning and that is basically where it would stay for the rest of the game.
Tampa would begin both the second and third periods on the power play, but as noted, the Devils would kill them off.
Andy Greene would be called for tripping at the 12:52 mark of the third which would set up a crucial PK late in the game. Palmieri would come through on that one, blocking a shot and clearing the puck while visibly hurting. He would be okay, but the effort showed that the Devils were really engaged in this one.
They would pull Cory with about 1:15 left in the contest in a bid to get things tied up, but it was to no avail. Kucherov iced the game with his second of the night, an empty netter from Miller at 18:52. That made it 3-1 in the game and gave the Lightning the 3-1 series lead.
With Vatanen – a d-man who plays in all situations and accrues the most ice time on the team – out, Butcher actually led the team in TOI with 21:52. Down a man, the time was more spread out on the defense corps. Of Butcher’s time, 7:32 of it was on the power play. Damon Severson led the team in shots on goal by a wide margin with eight. Hits were led by Brian Boyle, Drew Stafford and Marcus Johansson with four each. Ben Lovejoy led in blocked shots with four and Greene had three takeaways to lead in that category.
Team-wise, Tampa led in shots 37-28. The Devils won 59-percent of the faceoffs and led in hits 25-19. Blocks were even at ten for each team.
Next up, the Devils head fown ot Florida for a do-or-die game five. The Devils will be hosting a viewing party for the game at Prudential Center. Tickets are $5 each and will benefit the survivors and family of the Humboldt Broncos tradedy in Saskatchewan. I will be attending so my post on the game will be a little bit late. That game is at 3 PM on NBC as well.
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