TIME: 3 p.m.
TAMPA, Fla. — Jon Cooper isn’t looking ahead by any means, but the Tampa Bay coach fully recognizes the opportunity to rest his team if the Lightning can close out their opening-round series with the New Jersey Devils by winning Game 5 on Saturday afternoon at Amalie Arena.
“If you have a chance to win a series, do it,” Cooper explained Friday with his team staked to a 3-1 series lead after a 3-1 win on Wednesday night in Newark. “It’s the travel, it’s the wear. Just to get the mental and physical rest, to sit around and hope all the other series go deep. If you have this opportunity, you hope to take advantage of it.”
The Lightning have looked like the Eastern Conference’s top seed in building a 3-1 lead against the Devils, who had won all three regular-season meetings with Tampa Bay.
The Lightning have scored consistently — 15 goals in four games — and have shored up one key area of concern in their penalty-kill unit. It ranked among the league’s worst in the regular season, but has been stellar of late, holding the Devils to 2 of 16 on power plays in the last three games..
New Jersey has already switched goalies, moving on from Keith Kincaid in the middle of Game 2 after he gave up nine goals in less than five periods. Cory Schneider has been better, and Devils coach John Hynes said he feels confident in his team being able to take the series back to New Jersey for Game 6.
“I think we’re right there,” he said Friday. “I think we’re prepared. We’re ready to play. Let’s get at it.”
Hynes had no update on whether defenseman Sami Vatanen would go Saturday after sustaining an upper-body injury on a check by Lightning star Nikita Kucherov, who was not suspended by the league. Kucherov has been the series’ leading scorer, with four goals and five assists, far more than New Jersey’s Taylor Hall, who has just two goals and four assists.
Schneider will have his hands full containing the Lightning on its home ice. In addition to Kucherov, Alex Killorn has four goals, three on power plays, and Steven Stamkos has four assists as well.
“(Schneider) looks a lot more confident. He’s playing the calm game, the quiet game, and it’s nice to see him come in there and play the way he has,” Hynes said.
The Lightning have stayed with top goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy throughout the series — he’s now one of three finalists for the Vezina Trophy, just as top defenseman Victor Hedman is a finalist for the Norris Trophy.
What those two can earn for sure is a few days’ rest with a win Saturday, knowing other series are already locked in for at least six games, if not seven.
Tampa Bay would face the winner of the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, where Boston is in the same position with a 3-1 series lead. But Columbus and Washington will play at least six games, as will Philadelpha and Pittsburgh, potentially giving Tampa Bay and Boston an extended rest before the second round.