Rookie Tyler Johnson scored a tiebreaking shorthanded goal at 12:41 of the third period and the Lightning beat the Canadiens 3-1 on Tuesday to wrap up their first playoff berth since 2011.
For the Lightning, it was a sweet end to what has been a trying season piled high with adversity, one in which Steven Stamkos was lost for four months to a broken leg and team captain Martin St. Louis asked for and was granted a trade away from the team that made him a star.
Coach Jon Cooper said the day after Stamkos broke his leg on Nov. 11 in Boston that the Lightning would persevere and get through the injury, that the Lightning would continue winning games in spite of everyone in the hockey world writing them off completely.
Those words seem prophetic today, and Cooper couldn't be happier.
"We started with a team that I don't think anybody really gave us a shot to be in the playoffs. I think from that side you're really proud of our accomplishments," Cooper said. "Deep down inside I'm excited. I'm excited for what's happening. I'll be honest, it's a really cool feeling. We're going to finish our regular-season schedule in Washington knowing that we're going to play another game. Anybody that's ever been a part of competition, especially playoff hockey, a seven-game series, there's nothing more fun than that. It's an exciting time and I'm fired up that we'll be a part of it."
The belief, whether real or not, that they were being written off by everyone appears to have fueled the Lightning to reach this goal. It was perhaps the most difficult for Stamkos, who had to watch as his teammates picked up the slack from his injury -- they were 22-18-5 in his absence as he worked hard to speed up his recovery -- and then watching his mentor and great friend St. Louis get traded the day before his return to the lineup.
But Stamkos has been a difference-maker, leading the Lightning to a 20-7-4 mark when he is dressed with 23 goals and 13 assists in 31 games.
"We're proud [of clinching] in here," Stamkos said. "It's been an adverse season to say the least. The guys have battled through a lot of things, and a lot of people were probably doubting us after certain guys got injured, and trades and the amount of young guys we had on this team.
"It is an accomplishment, but there is still a lot of hard work to be done."
The Lightning was not the only team with something to celebrate postgame, though they were the only ones who were in the mood to do so.
With the Washington Capitals' 5-0 loss to the Dallas Stars and the New Jersey Devils' 3-2 shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres, the Canadiens also clinched their sixth playoff appearance in seven seasons despite going home without a point. The playoff qualification was of little solace to most in the Canadiens dressing room following the game, but coach Michel Therrien admitted he and his players should also be proud of what they did.
"If you look at the whole season, making the playoffs is an achievement," Therrien said. "It's very demanding and very hard to make the playoffs. We would have liked to clinch under better circumstances, but if you look at the big picture it's a nice accomplishment."
The Lightning moved past the Canadiens into second place in the Atlantic Division with the victory. The teams are tied at 93 points, nine more than the Detroit Red Wings, but Tampa has six games left, one more than Montreal.
If indeed these two teams meet in the playoffs, which looks very likely, it promises to be a fast-paced, closely fought series judging by the four games these teams played in the regular season.
This was the first of the four that did not end 2-1, and that was only because Alex Killorn scored into an empty net with 44.3 seconds to play. It was Tampa Bay's third win in the season series and the first of the four games that did not go to overtime or a shootout.
"Who knows how this is going to play out, if we're going to play them in the first round or not," Cooper said. "But it would be a pretty exciting one if that's the way it plays out."
Canadiens goaltender Carey Price and Tampa Bay counterpart Ben Bishop have been outstanding in all four games, combining to allow 10 goals in 254 minutes of play. Each was tremendous again Tuesday, with Bishop making 25 saves and Price stopping 30 shots.
"I thought for one game Price might have made the difference, or it might have been a little bit of a wider gap [without him]," Cooper said. "There's a reason he went to the Olympics and did what he did there. He's not a good goalie, he's an elite goalie. But we've got a great adversary down on the other side."
Ryan Callahan, acquired from the New York Rangers in the St. Louis trade on March 5, scored his sixth goal in 14 games with the Lightning (42-25-9) after Brendan Gallagher opened the scoring for the Canadiens (43-27-7).
Johnson's winner came on a breakaway with Nate Thompson in the penalty box. He beat Price cleanly with a move to the backhand for his 23rd goal of the season and fifth on the penalty kill. Johnson tied Stamkos' franchise record for goals by a rookie and moved into a tie with Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins for the League lead in shorthanded goals.
"Speed kills," Cooper said, "and he's got it."
Lightning defenseman Michael Kostka was injured with 2:13 to play after taking a heavy hit from Canadiens defenseman Douglas Murray as he crossed the Montreal blue line. Kostka lay motionless on the ice for several minutes after the hit and the Lightning trainers called for a stretcher to come out on the ice, but Kostka eventually got up and skated slowly to the bench under his own power.
Kostka will be re-evaluated Wednesday, Cooper said.
"I don't know how he skated off on his own power," Cooper said. "But one thing's for sure, he doesn't feel as well now as he did a couple of hours ago."
Murray was assessed a match penalty for an illegal check to the head, which triggers an automatic review by the NHL Department of Player Safety.
"I was happy to see he got up and was doing better," Murray said. "I felt like I had my arm tucked in, but I'm not going to comment much on it because I'm obviously going to get a review on it and I haven't really got a chance to look at it afterwards."
The Canadiens jumped out to a 1-0 lead at 10:18 of the first period on Gallagher's 19th goal of the season. A Tampa Bay clearing attempt was misplayed at the half boards by Lightning forward Teddy Purcell, and the puck bounced right into the slot to Mike Weaver. The Montreal defenseman made a nifty play with the puck to get into a shooting position and put a backhander on Bishop, who kicked it out onto Gallagher's stick for the rebound goal.
The Lightning got even 9:19 into the second period on the power play when Callahan picked up a puck left for him by rookie Ondrej Palat before Palat fell and took out two members of the Canadiens in doing so. That cleared a path to the net down the right side for Callahan, who beat Price with a great backhand to the far corner.
The Lightning came very close to taking a 2-1 lead on two occasions before the end of the period.
The first came with about five minutes to play when Steven Stamkos and J.T. Brown broke in 2-on-1. Stamkos kept the puck and forced Price to make a difficult glove save before the rebound bounced out to Purcell in the slot. With Price on his knees Purcell shot high, only to have it stopped by Price's glove again.
With 11.7 seconds to play, Purcell appeared to beat Price on a shot from the slot with Brown screening the goaltender in front. But after the officials got together to discuss it was deemed that Brown interfered with Price and waved off the goal. Replays appeared to suggest Brown made contact with Price after the puck entered the net.
Purcell also hit the crossbar on a backhand from in tight about three minutes into the third period.
When it was all over, Cooper walked off the bench and down the tunnel, reveling in another win. It was only when people began congratulating him as he made his way to the dressing room that he realized what had just happened, that the Lightning had just guaranteed themselves a spot in the playoffs.
"It's just one game, but really it's 76 all bottled up into one," he said. "You sit back and you think about the very first day of training camp and the very first time we had 60 guys in a room and when as a [coaching] staff we first sat down together, what we were striving for is to win a Stanley Cup. But you cannot win a Stanley Cup unless you get into the tournament."