NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — A feisty Nikita Kucherov scored two goals, set up another and knocked New Jersey’s top defenseman out of the game with a big hit, and the Tampa Bay Lightning moved within a game of making the Devils’ first trip to the playoffs in six years a short one with a 3-1 victory on Wednesday night.
J.T. Miller also scored and had two assists, and Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped three breakaways in making 27 saves as the Lightning bounced back from a loss in Game 3 to tale a 3-1 lead in the first-round series.
Tampa Bay can wrap up the best-of-seven series in Game 5 at home on Saturday.
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. Cory Schneider made 34 saves for New Nersey in starting his second straight game.
This game might have been the roughest of the series, especially in the first period when the Lightning took a 2-1 lead in a session with a lot of scrums.
The play everyone is going to talk about and the NHL probably will look at is Kucherov’s hit on Sami Vatanen late in the first. No penalty was called but the league’s No. 3 scorer appeared to jump before hitting Vatanen in the shoulder and head area. Devils coach coach John Hynes screamed at the officials after the play.
Vatanen did not return.
The Lightning were leading 2-1 at that point and the score didn’t change until Kucherov’s empty net goal with 1:08 to play iced the game.
Kucherov broke a 1-all tie with 4:58 left in the period. Defenseman Brayden Coburn sent a pass from the left boards that hit off Devils’ defenseman Damon Severson. Kucherov collected the loose puck right in front and put it high into the net for his third goal of the series.
The Lightning had tied it at 11:30 on a great rush. Steven 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 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.
Vasilevskiy kept Tampa Bay in the game over the next few minutes, stopping a breakaway by Travis Zajac with Paquette still in the penalty box and a semi-breakaway by Blake Coleman with 9:05 left in the period. He also stopped Patrick Maroon on a second-period break.
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.
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