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Five observations from Game 4 between the New Jersey Devils and Tampa Bay Lightning:
1. The power play wasn't good enough
This game ultimately came down to New Jersey's execution, or lack thereof, while up a man. They had six extra man opportunities – including several at pivotal times while trying to draw even – and the only time they converted was on an early 5-on-3. They not only struggled to capitalized, but struggled to generate chances. On a few of the power plays they struggled to get setup and when they did the puck movement was stagnant. They also had a helluva time getting shots through traffic and on net.
As you can see, the Devils generated the fewest amount of attempts, and shots on goal, per minute of the series.
It really felt like Tampa Bay figured out New Jersey's power play and were sitting on passes to Palmieri and/or the backdoor play.
Luckily, the Devils have a couple days off to tweak some things and figure out how to break the Lightning down.
2. Cory Schneider gave them a shot
Though the Devils were out-chanced by nine, they were in the game until Nikita Kucherov (of course) buried an empty-netter with just over a minute to go.
I didn't think Schneider *looked* as sharp as he did in Game 2 or Game 3 – there were some rebounds there for the taking – but he still managed to do his part stopping 34 of 36 shots he has faced.
Through seven periods of play he has posted a .951 save percentage and held the league's highest scoring offense to just four goals.
While a lot to ask, the Devils need him to continue playing similarly well if they're going to have a chance to come back in this series.
3. Taylor Hall was shockingly quiet
I can't remember a game where Hall was kept in check like he was last night. That's no exaggeration, either.
At 5v5, he couldn't do anything. He had no room to breathe in the neutral zone. Every time he accepted a pass, there were one, two, or sometimes three Lightning players charging him and erasing any space he had to work with. He couldn't get going and consistently had to defer to others.
When all was said and done, he picked up a secondary assist, one shot on goal, and zero (0) high-danger chances despite logging more than 20 minutes of ice – and over seven on the power play.
Part of it was Tampa Bay's aggressive 'you're not beating us, we'll take our chances nobody else can' style of defense. Part of it was just an off night – they happen. And part of it was matchups.
Though the Devils had last change in their back pocket, Hall's six most frequent opponents (in order of ice time) were:
1. Ryan McDonagh
2. Anton Stralman
3. Nikita Kucherov
4. J.T. Miller
5. Steven Stamkos
6. Victor Hedman
So he saw a lot of Tampa Bay's best two-way pairing, a likely Hart Trophy candidate and his linemates, and a likely Norris candidate.
Jon Cooper did a great job of getting his best players out against Hall as much as possible.
4. Sami Vatanen
If Vatanen is injured – concussion? – and unable to play on Saturday, the Devils will be in deep trouble.
For one, Vatanen is their horse on the back end. He plays in every situation and is only three minutes behind Andy Greene for the team lead in 5v5 ice despite missing the vast majority of Game 4.
He also has been used against Nikita Kucherov and Tampa Bay's top line whenever possible and done a stand up job.
In 25:37 of Vatman vs Kucherov, the Devils have out-shot the Lightning 15-10 and out-scored the 2-1. You're not going to do any better than that vs a Hart Trophy candidate.
If Vatanen is out, that means Damon Severson, Ben Lovejoy and/or John Moore would be in line for more, and tougher, minutes. Severson is not as stable defensively, Lovejoy was crushed when he consistently faced top competition in 2016-17, and Moore is a) not stable defensively and; b) would have to play his off-side. Not great options!
Quite honestly, it'll be tough to win another game if Vatanen can't play. He's that important to the Devils.
5. Pavel Zacha upped his game
On a positive note, I thought Zacha played his best game of the series. The 2nd line as a whole was solid but Zacha may have been the best of the bunch. The Devils out-chanced the Lightning 7-2 with him on the ice at 5v5 and he finished tied for 3rd in the game with three scoring chances. Marcus Johansson set him up for some good looks and he actually shot the puck (he had just two attempts in the first three games), which was nice to see.
Five observations from Game 3
Five observations from Game 2
Five observations from Game 1
Eastern Conference playoff predictions: Round 1
Western Conference playoff predictions: Round 1