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Burns: Three things we learned from backing into the playoffs

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

The execution didn’t go as the Bolts planned, but the Tampa Bay Lightning will make their third-straight appearance in the postseason.

The Lightning surrendered a 2-0 first-period lead and fell to the New York Rangers 3-2 on Tuesday, dropping their second-consecutive game and third in their last four.

But that result mattered little as it pertained to the Bolts’ playoff chances it turned out. Boston lost 2-1 in a shootout to Carolina, guaranteeing the Lightning will finish above the Bruins in the Atlantic Division standings and securing the Bolts’ postseason berth.

Florida’s win in Montreal combined with the Lightning’s loss to the Rangers means the Bolts can no longer catch the Panthers in the Atlantic. Florida will finish as the Atlantic Division champion, earning its second division title in team history.

Meanwhile, with two games remaining in the regular season, the Lightning’s magic number to earn home ice for the first round of the playoffs is 2, any combination of Tampa Bay victories or Detroit losses reducing that number.

The Bolts are ensured of finishing at least third in the Atlantic Division and will play either Boston or Detroit in the first round.

Now that the Lightning are in and the playoff picture is coming into focus, let’s take a look at the Bolts’ recent struggles in today’s 3 Things.

1. INJURED LIST GROWS LONGER

The Lightning were already reeling from the absence of captain and leading scorer Steven Stamkos and top-pair defenseman Anton Stralman heading into the postseason.

Now, they’re depth and resolve will be tested even further.

Before Tuesday’s game, the Lightning announced Ryan Callahan (lower-body injury) and Victor Hedman (upper-body injury) would not play against the Rangers. Both are day-to-day and could miss the final two games of the regular season, meaning four of the Lightning’s most indispensable players are out with the playoffs just a week away.

Lightning head coach Jon Cooper didn’t have an update on the latest injured Bolts following the game.

“I can’t sit here and say if (Hedman and Callahan) are going to be back for the rest of the regular season or not,” Cooper said. “They might be. They might not be, so I’ll give them a little rest here (Wednesday) and re-evaluate Thursday.”

The good news is Hedman and Callahan aren’t expected to miss extended time like Stralman and Stamkos will. And, looking at the situation from a glass-half-full perspective, their absence allows guys like Jonathan Marchessault, Slater Koekkoek and Mike Blunden to gain more experience.

“That’s a core group of guys, guys you build your team around,” Lightning forward Brian Boyle said of the four injured Bolts. “But coming in here in this building against this team, it’s a great opportunity for a lot of guys to play in a great building, good atmosphere, playoff-type atmosphere, for guys to get some minutes.”

The makeshift Lightning lineup played well in the Big Apple but couldn’t close the deal after opening with two goals and 21 shots in the first period.

“Guys gamed it out,” Cooper said. “I think we took it to them in every statistic possible except for the scoreboard. It was unfortunate.”

2. KEEPING THE FOOT ON THE GAS

Already ahead 2-0, the Lightning were handed a golden opportunity to stretch the lead and put the game out of reach late in the first period when Tanner Glass nailed an unaware Vladislav Namestnikov from the side at center ice and was given a five-minute major penalty and game misconduct.

The Lightning had already scored on the power play earlier in the period when Brian Boyle tipped Ondrej Palat’s shot into the net for the Bolts’ second goal. They had a chance to rack up more special teams goals with the extended man-advantage, but a lack of urgency kept the Lightning from capitalizing.

When the Bolts did finally start sending some pucks toward the Rangers’ net as the penalty drew to a close, Henrik Lundqvist was on top of his game to prevent Tampa Bay from doing any more damage.

“Did (Lundqvist) make some big saves tonight? There’s no question,” Cooper said. “He’s done that for his whole career. He kept them close enough to get back into it, and that’s what good goalies do. We had ample opportunities to score tonight. They just weren’t going in.”

Had the Bolts been more aggressive on the extended power play, perhaps they could have tested Lundqvist a bit more and maybe even netted a goal or two to build on their lead. They were too passive, however, and content to just maintain possession without really threatening Lunqvist’s goal.

The Rangers built off the momentum of the successful penalty kill to get back into the game.

The Bolts could have closed the deal.

Instead, they opened the door for the Rangers.

3. THE FINAL PUSH

The Lightning don’t have a whole lot to play for over the final two games of the regular season.

There’s home ice advantage, which the Bolts can wrap up with a win or a Detroit regulation loss over the Red Wings’ last three games.

But with a spot in the postseason already assured and the division title out of reach for good, the Lightning will focus on rounding out their game and peaking as they head into the playoffs.

“We’ve got to get some wins, obviously,” Boyle said. “We need two points so we can get that two seed (in the Atlantic) and home ice in that first round. We’ve got to feel good about our game though with a win.”

After winning four of five games, the Lightning have started to slide in the last week having dropped three of their last four.

It’s important for the Bolts to put an end to that slide before the postseason begins.

If the Lightning come out with the same effort in the final two games as they did against the Rangers, the results should be more favorable.

“For us to come in here and put 40 shots on the board, it’s unfortunate we only got two goals,” Cooper said. “But, we’ve got to find a way, and unfortunately we didn’t tonight. But it’s not like they weren’t trying. The guys were gaming it out.”

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