With a 2-1 victory over the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday evening, the Tampa Bay Lightning clinched a playoff berth and are headed back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after a four-year absence.
The two likely first round opponents split the season series with each team winning both of their home games.
The Lightning last appeared in the second season back in 2007. Despite leading the New Jersey Devils two games to one in the first round, Tampa was knocked out in six games.
Last evening, the Bolts held off a serious late third period charge by the Pens to hold onto for the victory. The games No.1 star was Lightning goalie, Dwayne Roloson.
Roloson made 36 saves on the night and came up big in the final three minutes. He made several point-blank pad saves to keep his team ahead by the one goal.
“Rollie played solid,” Lightning head Coach Guy Boucher said. “He’s been really good for us and he knows how to take the pressure.”
The Bolts played as they have for much of the season in clinching a playoff berth. They outplayed, outshot and outhit the opposition in the first half of the game and then played sloppy, gave the puck away and allowed a third period goal without scoring one.
While the locker room was happy following the game, Guy Boucher is well aware that Tampa must become more disciplined in the final 30 to 40 minutes of the game.
“I congratulated them,” Boucher said, “but I equalized things pretty fast.”
The Penguins who are playing without two of the best offensive players in the world in Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, outshot the Lightning 17-10 in the third period and 37-24 for the game.
The Bolts currently reside as the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference while the Penguins sit just three points ahead of them in the No. 4 spot. It is highly probable that these two teams will face each other in two weeks when the playoffs begin.
The chances of the Bolts catching the Caps or the Pens catching the Flyers for the lead in the Atlantic and Southeast divisions are slim- to- none and slim is boarding his plane now to leave town.
That is not to say that these two teams cannot flip flop seeds and that would be huge for the Lightning if they could catch the Pens for fourth place in the conference.
The top four seeds own home ice during the first round of the playoffs. Tampa with five games remaining, owns a game in hand on the Penguins.
In last night’s game, the Lightning were able make a pair of first period goals by Steve Downie and Martin St. Louis stand depsite being outplayed in the second half of the game.
Downie opened the scoring by collecting a loose puck in front of the Penguins net and backhanding it over Pittsburgh’s All Star starting goalie, Marc-Andrea Fleury. St Louis made the score 2-0 when he beat Fleury short side with an accurate wrist shot over his left shoulder. The opening that St.Louis found could not have been bigger than that of a salad bowl.
Downie’s ninth of the year and St. Louis’s 30th held until the Pens Michael Rupp beat Dwayne Roloson 4:31 into the final frame. Rupp lofted a soft wrist from the half board and Roloson who was screened on the shot by his own defender, never had a sight line on the puck until it was too late.
Tampa Bay held off a furious late charge by the Crosby less Penguins. A Penguins team that may have felt as though they were playing a home game.
Many fans in the sellout crowd at Saint Pete Time Forum could be seen wearing black and gold as well as heard chanting “lets go Pens” for the team representing the steel city.
Thursday’s win earned Tampa Bay its 95th point of the season, which marks the second-highest single-season total in franchise history. The Lightning reached 106 points in 2003-04 on their way to the team’s first Stanley Cup championship.
Following the game, first year owner Jeff Vinik and first year GM and VP Steve Yzerman entered the locker room and congratulated the players and coaches by shaking their hands and patting them on the back.
Vinik stated, “With the team we’ve put in place, I couldn’t be more excited.” .While just as excited about his team, Yzerman understood that there is a long way to go on this process.
“We’ve established certain standards and a work ethic. We’ve accomplished a few things, but it doesn’t make it a successful season yet.,” said the longtime Detroit Red Wings Captain.
If the Lightning can catch the Penguins and finish as the No.4 seed, they will have earned the spot.
Tampa hits the road for three straight starting tomorrow afternoon in Minnesota to play the Wild. They have just one of their five remaining games at home and play four teams that are fighting for their playoff lives.
The Wild are currently eight points behind the Chicago Blackhawks for the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference. Minnesota cannot afford to take half of a period off much less lose a hockey game at this point. From Minnesota, the Bolts travel to play the eighth seeded team in both conferences, The Chicago Blackhawks and the Buffalo Sabres.
Although the Lightning still have something to play for, they need to wary of desperate teams playing desperate hockey during the first week of April. One thing is for sure Lightning fans, following this late season road trip against these desperate teams, the Bolts should be more than playoff ready once the second season begins