Just one regular season game remains in what has been a record-setting year for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Tampa Bay finally broke the New Jersey Devils’ hex following Thursday night’s 4-3 overtime victory at Amalie Arena, the Bolts first win this season against the next-to-last team in the Metropolitan Division.
The Lightning have plenty to play for in the final game of the year Saturday versus the Boston Bruins. The Bolts can still win the Atlantic Division and secure home-ice advantage for a possible second round playoff matchup, but they’ll need help. The Lightning have to beat Boston and hope Montreal falls in regulation in Toronto, which would create a tie at the top of the division standings, the Bolts and Habs each with 108 points. In that scenario, the Lightning own the tiebreaker (wins in regulation/overtime) and would claim the Atlantic title.
So how can the Bolts do it? And who will they play in the first round? We’ll examine all that and more in today’s 3 Things.
1. PLAYOFF PICTURE STILL BLURRY
This much is known about the Stanley Cup Playoffs and Tampa Bay’s role in it: the Lightning are in and they’ll have home ice for the opening round.
Beyond that, everything else is up in the air.
Detroit, Ottawa, Pittsburgh and the New York Islanders all remain potential first-round playoff opponents.
The likeliest outcome? The Lightning finish second in the Atlantic and face off against the third-place team in the division, either Detroit or Ottawa. Currently, the Senators are just one point back of the Red Wings with one to play and could leap frog Detroit into third place on Saturday. Boston isn’t an option in this situation as the Bruins have no chance of finishing third in the division and are fighting for one of two wild card spots.
If the Lightning do overtake Montreal and capture their third division title in team history, then Detroit, Ottawa, Pittsburgh and the Islanders all come into play, the Bolts matching up against the wild card team with the better point total. The New York Rangers, who locked up the Presidents’ Trophy earlier this week, are guaranteed to play the lowest point total team (or, the eighth seed).
Boston is on the outside of the playoff race looking in, so the Bruins will be a desperate team when they play the Lightning on Saturday. Any loss and the Bruins will miss out on the postseason for the first time since 2006-07.
“We can play the spoiler,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “We can play for a chance to win our division and to get a chance to get home ice…There’s some stuff on the line, obviously a little more for them, but we’ve got to play the right hockey and hopefully this is a good game to end on heading into the playoffs.”
2. POWER SUPPLY
Tampa Bay’s power-play unit has been much maligned this season and for good reason. The Lightning have the top offensive attack in the National Hockey League yet rank in the middle of the pack with the man advantage (currently tied for 14th at 18.9 percent).
Over the last two weeks, however, the Bolts’ power play has hit its stride and is humming heading into the postseason.
The Lightning have scored a power-play goal in each of their last five games. Thursday against the Devils, the Bolts converted three of eight power-play opportunities and scored the overtime game winner with a 4-on-3 advantage.
“It was good that they were obviously big goals for us,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “The last one’s a winner. I think the third one was (the Devils) had just tied it, and that was our go-ahead goal. So, we got some timely ones. We clearly needed all three to win tonight, but you need to have your special teams going.”
Most encouraging for the Bolts, Stamkos is finding open space on his preferred spot inside the left circle and converting with his trademark near-post howitzer. Stamkos scored his 43rd of the season after going down to his right knee to snap Tyler Johnson’s cross-ice pass past the Devils’ Keith Kinkaid to put the Lightning up 3-2 in the second period, the second-straight game he’s scored in this manner.
“Our special teams have kind of, they’re finding their groove here down the stretch, which you really need,” Cooper said.
3. TRIPLETS UNITE
Nothing new here, but when the Triplets are on their game, special things happen.
Last night, Nikita Kucherov set up one of the easiest goals Tyler Johnson will ever score in his life with a ridiculous look-away pass from between the circles.
Kucherov stared down Ondrej Palat on the left post to draw the Devils’ defense in his direction then nonchalantly slipped a pass off to the right post for Johnson, who was all by himself, the Devils having forgotten about the Bolts All-Star center. All Johnson had to do was keep his stick on the ice and merely redirect the puck into the wide-open net for the Bolts’ first goal.
Johnson scored two of Tampa Bay’s four goals for his 28th and 29th of the season on Thursday. The Triplets combined for nine total points against New Jersey.
“Johnny’s line’s back together now, so I think they’ve kind of found their stride,” Cooper said. “I thought they were outstanding tonight.”
With Johnson back in the lineup after missing three games last week due to an upper-body injury, the Triplets are firing on all cylinders currently.
Nothing should strike more fear in the hearts of playoff opponents.