NEWARK, N.J. — Angry after losing a playoff game, Nikita Kucherov and the Tampa Bay Lightning took out their ire on the New Jersey Devils.
Not only did the Lightning defeat New Jersey 3-1 on Wednesday to move within a game of making the Devils’ first trip to the playoffs in six years a short one, Kucherov was a one-man demolition man.
The NHL’s No. 3 scorer this season scored two goals, set up another and knocked New Jersey’s top defenceman, Sami Vatanen, out of the game with a big hit in the opening period.
"Kuch tonight flexed his muscles," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "He’s pretty dynamic on the power play, but tonight, all around, I thought he was the best player on the ice."
Kucherov has been the best player in the series so far. He has four goals and five assists in four games and he came into this game upset after the Lightning blew a 2-1 third-period lead in Game 3 to let the Devils back in the series.
With a 3-1 lead now, Tampa Bay can wrap up the best-of-seven series in Game 5 at home on Saturday.
"I didn’t like the way we had so many penalties in the last game, giving up so many opportunities on the power play," Kucherov said. "For me, I was (angry) and didn’t want to lose–especially the way they reacted after some goals."
The play everyone is going to talk about and the NHL probably will look at is Kucherov’s hit on Vatanen. No penalty was called but the 24-year-old Russian appeared to jump before hitting Vatanen in the shoulder and head area.
Cooper thought the hit was legal. Devils coach John Hynes screamed at the officials after the play but declined to talk about it after the game. Devils goaltender Cory Schneider, who made 34 saves, said he would give referees Tim Peel and Wes McCauley the benefit of the doubt on the play.
Kucherov said he did not intend to hurt Vatanen, who did not return. He has an undisclosed upper body injury, the Devils said.
"He’s normally the one dancing around guys," said linemate J.T. Miller, who scored the other Lightning goal and had two assists. "I couldn’t believe it was him. I was right behind him and that’s a big-league hit right there. That’s the type of player he is. He’s competitive and he wants to win really bad."
Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped three breakaways in making 27 saves as the Lightning bounced back from a 5-2 loss.
"Vasy made some great saves, especially early on the game with a couple of breakaways," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "That calmed us down a bit and I thought we played a great third period."
Kyle Palmieri scored on a 5-on-3 advantage for the Devils, who are back in the playoffs for the first time since reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2012. It was the only time they beat Vasilevskiy, whose 44 wins in the regular season shared the league lead with Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck.
"We were picked to finish last in the East and last in the Metro," Devils defenceman Ben Lovejoy said. "This is a spot we are comfortable. We are comfortable being the underdog. We need to go out and win one game in Tampa. We need to go out and play our best game."
Kucherov broke a 1-all tie with 4:58 left in the period. Defenceman Brayden Coburn sent a pass from the left boards that hit off Devils’ defenceman Damon Severson. Kucherov collected the loose puck right in front and put it high into the net for his third goal of the series. He would ice the game with an empty-net goal with 1:08 to go.
The Lightning had tied it at 11:30 of the opening period on a great rush. Stamkos fed Kucherov entering the zone and he found Miller on the left side for a shot over Schneider’s shoulder.
Cory Conacher appeared to give Tampa Bay the lead with 7:39 left in the period, but the goal was overturned when a review found the Lightning were offside.
For the first time in the series, the Devils scored first with Palmieri converting from the left circle with the Lightning playing two men short at 8:23 of the first.
Alex Killorn got the first penalty at 7:47 with a hook and 25 seconds later Cedric Paquette tripped Taylor Hall. Eleven seconds later, New Jersey had its second 5-on-3 goal in two games.
NOTES: Lightning D Ryan McDonagh appeared in his 100th NHL playoff game. … This is the first time Schneider has had consecutive starts since Jan. 22-23. … There were no lineup changes for Game 4. … Vatanen has been leading the Devils in time on ice in the series, averaging 23:23. … Tampa Bay was 5 of 9 on the power play in the first three games. They were 0 for 5 in Game 4. They killed off 6 of 7 Devils’ power plays.