The Tampa Bay Lightning pushed within one game of advancing in the Stanley Cup playoffs on Wednesday. They took down the New Jersey Devils 3 to 1 to take a matching advantage in their seven-game Eastern Conference quarterfinals. The Lightning’s leading point producer, slammed Devil defenseman Sami Vatanen into the boards, knocking him out of the game.
After finishing off New Jersey in game five, Tampa Bay awaited a ruling from the NHL league office on the status of the NHL’s third leading point producer. Nikita Kucherov actually left the ice to level a violent hit on Vatanen, so there was some sense he could be punished with a one game suspension.
While the hit didn’t generate a penalty, the team still worried it could earn their star a lost game, or even more. It took less than 24 hours for league officials to render a decision. Kucherov will not receive any punishment for the hit that has Vatanen questionable to skate in game five.
However, as the Devils fly south to take on the Lightning in game five at Amalie Arena, their season is also day-to-day. As immediately pressing as game five is for New Jersey, Tampa Bay seriously wants to end this series now. A thought of game six back inside the raucous Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey is something Lightning boss Jon Cooper wants to avoid.
The NHL playoffs can be an arduous grind. Avoiding unnecessary cross-country trips and extra games helps the team maintain a sense of freshness as they navigate their way deeper into the playoff abyss. Case and point was made during the 2003-04 Stanley Cup Championship season.
Tampa Bay sailed through the opening rounds, needing only nine games to reach the Eastern Conference against the Philadelphia Flyers. This freshness proved invaluable as it was clear the Lightning were the more energetic team. That hard-fought seven game series was followed up by the donnybrook, 2 to 1 seventh game against Calgary to win The Cup.
So, while Devil fans wait the news on the status of Sami Vatanen for game five, the Lightning are now focused on more pressing matters. Their leading scorer will play. Ending this series in Florida on Saturday afternoon is will give Tampa Bay a short breather before they welcome their second round opponent to a sellout crowd at Amalie Arena.