The Tampa Bay Lightning had a chance to clinch a playoff spot with seven games left on the regular season schedule Thursday following Boston’s overtime loss in Anaheim, but the LIghtning fell short after falling to Nashville 3-2.
Tampa Bay still has plenty of time to secure its postseason bid, however.
The Bolts remain just one point behind the Montreal Canadiens for first place in the Atlantic Division and trail the New York Rangers by two for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Thursday’s defeat snapped a four-game win streak for the Lightning and dampened an otherwise successful homestand in which the Bolts finished 4-2-0.
So where does the loss leave the Lightning’s playoff chances? We’ll examine that and more in today’s 3 Things.
1. INJURY? WHAT INJURY?
Cedric Paquette came back on Thursday to play his first game since missing the previous six with an upper-body injury.
Paquette certainly didn’t take it easy in his return.
Before the game, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said Paquette provided “grit, size” for the Bolts and was a “pain in the (butt)” for opposing teams. The Predators got a dose of exactly what Cooper was talking about.
Paquette had a hand in the Lightning’s first goal, cutting Nashville’s lead in half right before the end of the first period. On the scoring play, Vladislav Namestnikov carried the puck into the Predators’ zone and skated behind the net while Paquette worked his way through traffic in front to get open. As Namestnikov’s wraparound shot traveled into the crease, Paquette crashed the net, creating enough of a distraction that Preds goalie Pekka Rinne lost sight of the puck and kicked it into his own goal.
Later, Paquette created the highlight of the night for the Lightning with 6:36 remaining in the second period after lining up Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm near the center line and depositing Ekholm into the Bolts bench. Ekholm wound up on his butt inside the box with his skates pointed toward the sky.
Early in the third, Paquette was working the dirty areas again, trying to get in position for a tip at the net when the blade of Namestnikov’s stick came up and smacked him in the face. Paquette rubbed his mouth, shook off the blow and continued going about his business.
During his two-week absence, Paquette was itching to get healthy and back on the ice. He punctuated the return with his typical, hard-nosed, relentless play that has become his trademark during a superlative rookie season.
Over the last month and a half, Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop has played some of the best hockey of his career. Entering Thursday’s game, Bishop had won nine of his previous 11 starts and had given up two goals or fewer in all but two.
Included during that stretch was a 33-save effort to engineer Tampa Bay’s first victory in San Jose since 2003, shutouts of NHL powers Chicago and Montreal and a 32-save performance 11 days ago versus Montreal that gave him four wins in four tries against the Atlantic-leading Canadiens this season.
It was inevitable at some point Bishop would have a bad outing.
It came Thursday.
After allowing two goals in the opening period, Bishop was pulled midway through the second when Michael Santorelli found a sliver of space between Bishop’s left skate and the post to bank the Predators’ third goal into the net.
“That’s a routine save for Bish all day,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said.
For whatever reason, Bishop wasn’t on top of his game against Nashville, but in no way does his performance on Thursday shake the Lightning’s confidence in their No. 1 goalie.
“Let’s erase any controversy, Ben’s been unreal for us,” Cooper said. “I think in his last 10 games, what’s his save percentage? It’s nine-high and well below two goals against. Would he like to have some of those back? There’s no question. But, would we have liked not to turn the puck over on the first one? Yes. Could our D-zone coverage been much better on the third one? Yes. So, he’s the last line of defense, and it got to him and they went in. It happens.”
3. LIGHTNING MAGIC NUMBER IS TWO
Despite Thursday’s loss, Tampa Bay can still clinch a postseason berth as early as Saturday afternoon.
If the Lightning defeat Detroit on Saturday, they’re in. If Boston loses to the Rangers on Saturday, the Bolts are in.
Puck drop for Tampa Bay-Detroit is 2 p.m. The Rangers and Bruins begin an hour earlier. It’s conceivable the Lightning could earn their eighth postseason appearance in 22 seasons before finishing against the Red Wings.
The Bolts, though, won’t be glancing at the out-of-town scoreboard while lining up against Detroit.
“We’re not focused on that right now,” Stamkos said. “We’re focused on winning hockey games. Whatever happens. happens. It’s going to take care of itself.”