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Lightning-Rangers Game 4 report card: Returning the favor

Ondrej Palat was the best player on the ice as Tampa Bay evened the East final at two games apiece.
Left wing Ondrej Palat had a goal and two assists in the Lightning's 4-1 victory over the Rangers Tuesday at Amalie Arena.
Left wing Ondrej Palat had a goal and two assists in the Lightning's 4-1 victory over the Rangers Tuesday at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 8|Updated Jun. 8

Ondrej Palat might have scored the winning goal, but Nikita Kucherov was the driving force behind the Lightning’s victory over the Rangers Sunday in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final.

Game 4 was Palat’s turn to shine. Simply, he was the best player on the ice.

Two nights after he was the beneficiary of a sublime pass from Kucherov on the decisive goal in the final minute, Palat returned the favor Tuesday at Amalie Arena.

Smart, skilled, sturdy plays by Palat set up goals by Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, spurring the Lightning to a 4-1 win that tied the series at two games apiece.

With just under seven minutes remaining in the second period, Palat sprung Kucherov on a breakaway with a pass down the center of the ice. With defenseman Ryan Lindgren seemingly thinking he would play the puck off the boards from just outside the Lightning blue line, Palat spotted Kucherov streaking into the offensive zone. He spun and put a tape-to-tape pass on Kucherov’s stick.

Kucherov streaked into the slot and beat Igor Shesterkin between the legs to give the Lightning a 2-0 lead. It went on to become the winning goal.

Early in the third, Palat absorbed a check from Mika Zibanejad along the wall, nearly lost his balance but stayed strong on the puck. He split two Rangers players, skated to the right circle and loosed a shot on net. Stamkos scored on the rebound to extend the Lightning lead to 3-0.

Fittingly, Palat, who has points in six of his last seven games and 13 this postseason, scored into an empty-net goal with nine seconds remaining to seal the victory.

With a game-high three points and plus-three plus-minus rating, he might have been an even bigger factor than he was in Game 3.

Grade: A+

Here’s how we graded the rest of the Lightning’s performance in Game 4:

Perfectly positioned

Lightning left wing Pat Maroon (14), far right, celebrates his first-period goal.
Lightning left wing Pat Maroon (14), far right, celebrates his first-period goal. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Fourth-line wing Pat Maroon might be the perfect role player. The three-time Stanley Cup champion understands his limitations (primarily foot speed) and plays to his strengths.

He’s got more than you might think: toughness, leadership, hockey sense, vision. He is most effective playing below the circles, taking away the goalie’s eyes and working to create rebound opportunities. He gets defenders to lean on him, wearing them down and setting up the next line.

Maroon was exactly where he needed to be 2-1/2 minutes into the game, and it resulted in a 1-0 Lightning lead that sent them on their way to their best game of the series and possibly the postseason.

After receiving a cross-ice pass from Pierre-Edouard Bellemare in the neutral zone, defenseman Zach Bogosian drove the net and backhanded a shot on goal. Nobody picked up Maroon as he drove into the paint, and he chipped a backhand shot into the back of the net.

Goal-scorer? Yeah, he can play that role, too.

Grade: A

Welcome return

There was a reason the Lightning wanted Bogosian back, signing him to a three-year deal in July after losing the defenseman to the Maple Leafs following their 2020 Stanley Cup season.

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Bogosian brings depth, experience, physicality and great skating ability to the blue line corps.

We saw it in the first period, when he skated with speed into the offensive zone, took the pass from Bellemare and raced down the right wing. He used a toe-drag move to get around defenseman Justin Braun and drove to the front of the net before backhanding a shot on Shesterkin.

The move forced the goaltender to slide off his position, leaving the net wide open for Maroon’s putback.

Later in the period, Bogosian drew a tripping penalty from Ryan Reaves that resulted in Tampa Bay’s first power play. In addition to his assist and shot on goal, he had a hit and two blocked shots in 14:16.

Good to have you back.

Grade: A

Bolts’ backbone is back

Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) blocks a shot on goal as Rangers center Mika Zibanejad (93) looks for the loose puck in the third period.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) blocks a shot on goal as Rangers center Mika Zibanejad (93) looks for the loose puck in the third period. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Andrei Vasilevskiy seemed to take a backseat to Shesterkin in the first two games, but the Lightning goaltender reasserted his dominance once the series moved to Tampa.

Vasilevskiy, who has not allowed a 5-on-5 goal since early in the third period of Game 2, stopped 34 of 35 shots, the sixth time this postseason he has allowed one goal or fewer. Only a 6-on-4 goal by Artemi Panarin with 3:33 remaining kept him from a shutout.

Vasilevskiy’s teammates did a nice job of taking away the middle of the ice, eliminating odd-man breaks and preventing seam plays, and Vasilevskiy came up with big saves when his team needed them.

He went into a split to make a right leg save on a Jacob Trouba shot that deflected off Zibanejad’s skate with about 6-1/2 minutes remaining, then blocked a Trouba blast from the center point with 1:20 to play. Earlier in the game, he made key stops against Kevin Rooney, Alexis Lafrenière and Tyler Motte to keep the Rangers at bay.

Vasilevskiy stood tall in the net, tracked pucks through traffic and showed off the positioning, anticipation, quickness and puck control that have become his trademarks.

Vintage Vasy.

Grade: A

The case for rest

Rust was blamed for the Lightning’s lackluster performance in a four-goal loss in Game 1.

But as the series goes on, we are starting to see the benefits of the nine days between the end of the second-round sweep of the Panthers and the start of the conference final.

As Tampa Bay has found its footing and reestablished its forechecking game (and Vasilevskiy has regained his rhythm), it appears to be wearing down a New York team that has played 17 games over the past 35 days.

With each passing day, Lightning center Brayden Point continues to make progress toward a possible return. Meanwhile, attrition seems to be taking a toll on the Rangers. Ryan Strome was a late scratch, and Filip Chytil did not return after the second period, taking away two of New York’s top three centers.

Maybe the break wasn’t such a bad thing.

Grade: B, for beneficial

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