NEWARK, N.J. — When the Lightning needed someone to replace Ondrej Palat, coach Jon Cooper turned to Brandon Hagel to fill that hole on the team’s top scoring line alongside Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov.
Hagel’s speed is exemplary. He can find space with the puck on his stick, but also does the same kind of dirty work that made Palat so valuable, winning puck battles and making hustle plays that put his linemates in a position to score.
And while Hagel played 40-some games with Point and Kucherov, he also recently found his calling with Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn to form a two-way line that can present matchup problems for opponents with the way they forecheck and hound the puck.
With Steven Stamkos sidelined Tuesday night with a lower body injury, Hagel reunited with Point and Kucherov in a road contest against Palat’s new team, the red-hot Devils, at the Prudential Center.
And Hagel was the best player on the ice, notching a three-point night in the Lightning’s much-needed 4-1 victory. After assisting on a momentum-shifting shorthanded goal that tied the score late in the first period, Hagel had the eventual game-winning goal, then set up a third Lightning goal.
“Hags is a worker bee,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “He just goes, goes, goes. And you’re really seeing the offensive side of his game really blossom here with (Point and Kucherov).”
The Lightning (40-22-6, 86 points) entered the night with a sub-.500 record away from Amalie Arena (15-16-1), but their win over a Devils team has been one of the best in the league since Dec. 1, and owned a share of the Metropolitan Division lead entering the night, was one of their most spirited road efforts in some time.
“Obviously our road record isn’t the way we want it to be,” Hagel said. “But it is what it is at this point. We’ve only got like 14 games left, so we’ve kind of got to find our mojo and if you want to win in the playoffs, you’ve got to win on the road.”
Asked whether this was the Lightning’s best road game of the season, Cooper said: “This was a couple steps in the right direction, there’s no question.”
The Lightning took the home crowd out of the game after Hagel scored at the 8:52 mark of the second period, the first of three Tampa Bay goals in the middle 20 minutes.
Hagel took a pass from Mikhail Sergachev at his own blue line and broke free, speeding up open ice before slowing down at the left dot and slapping a wrister past Devils goaltender Vitek Vanecek far post past his glove side to put the Lightning up 2-1.
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Midway through the first, the Lightning were in danger of falling out of the game when Devils defenseman Ryan Graves found the back of the net with 8:32 left in the period.
The goal gave the Devils (44-17-6, 94 points) a 2-0 lead, but after studying the replay monitors on the Lightning bench, Cooper challenged, arguing goaltender interference on Tomas Tatar, who had obstructed Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The Lightning won the challenge, negating the goal and essentially tilting momentum.
The Lightning found themselves in another tough situation when Ian Cole took a tripping penalty with 4:23 left in the period. But 40 seconds into the penalty kill, Cirelli put the Lightning on the board with his second shorthanded goal in as many games.
Hagel pushed the puck up the ice, catching the Devils flat-footed with his speed, and found Cirelli in the slot. Just like he did Sunday against Winnipeg, Cirelli pulled back for a backhanded shot that was true.
Hagel also set up Killorn for his sixth goal in seven games, dropping a pass to him at the left circle after winning the puck by the red line and maintaining possession through Jesper Bratt’s relentless backcheck.
“He does everything right,” Cirelli said of Hagel. “His effort, he’s one of the hardest-working guys out there. He can make plays, he wins battles. He comes up with pucks all the time. And he can finish, too. So when when you kind of put all that together, he’s a special player.”
Kucherov then capped the period, putting the Lightning ahead 4-1 with 0.8 seconds remaining with his 27th goal of the season. Kucherov brought the puck across the blue line, then ran a give-and-go with Point for a goal.
“There were turning points in the game: the challenge, the shorty, the goal with (0.8) seconds left. Those are big moments for us,” Cooper said.
Stamkos left Saturday’s game in the first period, but played the following night against Winnipeg. He was stung by a first-period blocked shot to the same leg Sunday, but finished the game. Stamkos is listed as day-to-day.
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