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The Lightning and Rangers are all square after four games. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Lightning and Rangers are all square after four games. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images)

Pat Maroon scored an early first period goal and the Tampa Bay Lightning didn’t look back, defeating the New York Rangers 4-1 on Tuesday to even the Eastern Conference Final at two games apiece.

Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos added insurance goals, Ondrej Palat provided an empty-netter and two primary assists, while Andrei Vasilevskiy made 33 saves in the win.

Artemi Panarin countered with the lone tally for New York.

Pat Maroon sets the tone for the Lightning

Through three games, the Lightning appeared to be overly reliant on their power play and the Kucherov, Stamkos and Palat line. Throughout the dynasty, the Lightning have been defined by their flexibility through their forward corps and Maroon set the tone for the defending champs, whacking home the game’s opening goal two minutes and 38 seconds into the contest.

It wasn’t a highlight-reel goal, but it perhaps exemplified what the Lightning needed to do to simplify the game, as Igor Shesterkin was largely unsolvable through three contests. Zach Bogosian is due for one eye-popping rush per playoffs and in Game 4 he set up Maroon’s goal, speeding past an outmatched Ryan Reaves through the outside, then dangling right around Justin Braun before tossing a backhand off Shesterkin’s pads. Maroon batted the puck into the net, and the Lightning were rolling.

Maroon is going for a fourth consecutive Stanley Cup, having won with the Blues in 2019 before joining the Lightning for their back-to-back runs. He’s been a vocal presence and was widely credited for helping Tampa Bay overcome the shocking 2019 first-round loss to Columbus. And during a postseason where Kucherov, Stamkos and Vasilevskiy have shone brightest, perhaps disproportionately so, it was imperative for Tampa Bay’s bottom-six to make an impact. Maroon delivered with flying colours.

The understated brilliance of Ondrej Palat

Playing on a team that boasts several future Hall of Famers, Palat often gets lost in the shuffle. He’s not necessarily underrated — by now, you’d have to be blissfully unaware of his contributions to the Lightning’s consecutive Cup victories.

I wrote last year about how Palat does all the small things well for the Lightning, and during our staff dream-team exercise, I made sure to select him early, in large part due to his elite puck-retrieval ability. Palat was the best player on the ice in Game 4, recording an empty-net goal and two primary assists, displaying his full arsenal of skills that sometimes get overlooked while fawning over his superstar linemates.

Palat is an excellent playmaker on a team replete with some of the game’s best passers, but his long-range pass to Kucherov set up Tampa’s second goal of the game, and buried New York for all intents and purposes in Game 4. Kucherov was robbed on a breakaway by Shesterkin in Game 3, and at the risk of playing armchair psychologist, he seemed elated to have exacted a small measure of revenge against his countryman.

Stamkos’s goal, which put the Lightning up 3-0, is a better encapsulation of Palat’s skill set. Palat wins a puck battle against the boards, outmuscling Mika Zibanejad while evading a half-hearted stick-check from Panarin. Palat created a prime shooting lane for himself, Shesterkin had trouble corralling the puck, and Stamkos tapped home the rebound before New York’s star goalie had a chance.

In a vacuum, Palat may not blow anyone away, especially when you can marvel at Stamkos’s one-timer or Kucherov’s puck tricks. But there is a reason why the Lightning protected him from the expansion draft, and with Brayden Point still on the injured list, his all-around contributions are more valuable than ever.

Palat, Kucherov and Stamkos controlled 98.2 percent of the expected goals at 5-on-5, with a 83.3 percent Corsi For share, according to Natural Stat Trick. Palat added three hits, and it’s fitting that he cruised in for an empty-net goal. It could’ve gone to Kucherov or Stamkos, but on a night where Palat did all the little things at an elite level, he certainly deserved the cherry on top.

Home-ice advantage matters as the series swings back to Madison Square Garden

As the series heads back to New York, neither team has been able to win on the road, and though we’d like to avoid discussing the intangible elements of the series in this space, it’s clear that home ice has played a major role through four games, particularly for the Rangers. Madison Square Garden was electric through Games 1 and 2, singing a rousing rendition of “Igor’s Better” during the opening game rout, while rap legend Bobby Shmurda danced merrily to the Rangers’ goal song, taunting a Lightning fan with glee.

Madison Square Garden is the mecca of basketball and hip-hop alike, and could be restoring its reputation as one of hockey’s iconic venues as the Rangers were seemingly galvanized by a packed house. We know with certainty that the Lightning can win on the road, even if they failed to make a dent through the opening two games. New York holds home ice for Game 5 and will host Game 7, if necessary.

New York could be in deep trouble without Filip Chytil

Filip Chytil left the game during the second period after getting hit along the boards by Victor Hedman. It was a rather innocuous looking play, but Chytil did not return for the third period and was ruled out with what the Rangers determined to be an upper-body injury. If he’s out beyond Tuesday, this could spell imminent danger for New York.

Chytil was the best player on the ice in New York’s 6-2 rout of Tampa Bay in Game 1. New York’s Kid Line, flanked by Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko, gave the battle-tested Lightning fits throughout the first two contests, as Chytil scored two goals in Game 1, while the Rangers outshot their opponent 15-3 with Chytil on the ice at 5-on-5 in Game 2. Outside of Shesterkin, who was finally out-duelled by Vasilevskiy in Game 4, you could make an argument that the 22-year-old has been New York’s best player throughout the series.

“He should be fine. We’ll have to wait and see,” Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant said of Chytil’s status post-game via Mollie Walker of the New York Post.

That appears to be good news, but the Rangers may have to think quickly. Ryan Strome did not suit up for Game 4 and was listed as a scratch after taking warmups, but he clearly is battling through the effects of an injury suffered in Game 3. Kevin Rooney was Strome’s replacement in Game 4, and though he wasn’t a net negative, he can’t be expected to reasonably replace either Strome or Chytil’s offense.

We’re now in a best-of-three and though the Rangers appeared to have the Lightning out of sorts, the defending champs responded with a strong counterpunch on their home turf. If the Rangers are to upset the Lightning, they’ll need every bit of their young and talented core to be healthy.

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