The box score of Saturday’s Game 4 will say that the Tampa Bay Lightning led by a goal after the first period, by a goal after the second, and by two at the final whistle. Straightforward, right?
Not by a long shot.
Despite carrying the balance of play at even strength, the Carolina Hurricanes played too much of the game down a man and the Lightning made them pay, taking a 6-4 win in Game 4 that gave them a 3-1 lead in the series and results in the Hurricanes facing elimination on Tuesday night in Raleigh.
The first clue that this was going to be a bizarre game came even before the opening face-off, when Warren Foegele and Blake Coleman were sent off for unsportsmanlike conduct at 0:00 of the first period for pushing and shoving before the puck was dropped. Just as the teams returned to full strength, Brady Skjei went to the box for a high-sticking call...except that neither of the referees called it, and linesmen aren’t allowed to call high sticks unless they result in injuries, so the Hurricanes stayed with five skaters.
Maybe they should have hoped that Skjei had taken that penalty, because the Hurricanes spent the next two periods killing an endless parade of penalties, to varying degrees of success.
Brayden Point opened the scoring on a tap-in with 5:30 to go in the first, after Dougie Hamilton fell asleep at the switch attempting to cover Point at the goal mouth following a failed Andrei Svechnikov clearing attempt. However, given that they had successfully killed two penalties in the first 20 minutes while the Lightning tilted the ice toward Petr Mrazek nearly nonstop, the Hurricanes could at least feel that they had escaped the first period with what amounted to a best-case scenario.
If only they had known what the next 20 had in store.
It was the first time since 2010 that a playoff game had featured an eight-goal period. The Hurricanes took the lead with two goals 39 seconds apart from Teuvo Teravainen and Jesper Fast. Steven Stamkos pulled the Lightning back to even on a power play at 9:54, but the Hurricanes took the lead again 41 seconds later through Hamilton, then doubled their lead courtesy of a Jaccob Slavin no-angle goal that was very much unlike what we’d seen from Andrei Vasilevskiy. If the Hurricanes could force Vasilevskiy to concede soft goals, had the tide finally turned?
No. No, it hadn’t.
Jake Bean, who had a game to forget, took an exceptionally weak holding penalty a minute and a half later, and Nikita Kucherov wired a laser past Mrazek in short order. That penalty, even among the never-ending Hurricanes processions to the box, turned the game on its head, and the Hurricanes were in trouble.
After Tyler Johnson scored his requisite goal against Carolina to tie it, Stamkos took advantage of a power play (what else?) given when Svechnikov took a roughing penalty at the same time as Mikhail Sergachev cross-checked Sebastian Aho. Only one of those penalties was called, and you, dear reader, can feel free to guess which one it was.
The Lightning scored their fourth straight goal six minutes into the third period, Kucherov again on a one-timer from Ondrej Palat after Bean fumbled the puck in the neutral zone. Up by two, the Lightning played the familiar rope-a-dope strategy that they had used to great success in the first two games of the series. While the Hurricanes had their chances, they couldn’t convert.
Rod Brind’Amour called his timeout with 2:30 remaining and pulled Mrazek for the extra attacker, but despite Steven Lorentz coming close with a second-opportunity chance after he overskated the puck flying into the zone with 40 seconds left, the Hurricanes couldn’t get any closer. They have two days left to figure out how to solve the Lightning riddle, and if they can’t, their season will end in in the second round for the first time since relocation.