Now, they’re just waiting on an opponent.
Following a 4-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center on Thursday, the Tampa Bay Lightning clinched second place in the Atlantic and home ice for the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Bolts will either replay last year’s First Round matchup with the Detroit Red Wings or face the Boston Bruins in the opening round this season.
Both the Bruins and Red Wings are tied at 93 points, each with one game remaining Saturday afternoon. The Bruins host Ottawa while the Red Wings play the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
By 4 p.m. Saturday, the Lightning will know their opening playoff opponent.
Tampa Bay’s game later that night against Montreal means nothing as far as standings and playoff positioning is concerned. But the result will no doubt be of importance to the Lightning. Thursday’s win in New Jersey ended a two-game losing skid for the Bolts. Another win on Saturday would give the Lightning a much-needed momentum boost as they prepare for the long, challenging playoff road ahead.
The Lightning can also match a franchise record for road wins in a season – 22, set in 2006-07 – with a win Saturday at the Bell Centre.
Tampa Bay took care of business versus the Devils. How were the Lightning able to persevere Thursday under trying circumstances? We’ll recap the win with an eye toward the playoffs in today’s 3 Things.
1. WELCOME BACK, JONATHAN
The Jonathan Drouin saga took an interesting turn Thursday morning when the Lightning announced the talented second-year forward would be rejoining the Bolts.
The move made sense. The Lightning have suffered a rash of injuries of late. Steven Stamkos is lost for one to three months and won’t return this season until the latter half of the playoffs, if at all. Ryan Callahan suffered a lower-body injury in the Bolts’ loss to the New York Islanders and might not be available for the remainder of the regular season.
Meanwhile, Drouin has been tearing it up in Syracuse, scoring nine goals in nine games since returning to the Crunch.
For an offense that needed a shot in the arm after scoring just seven goals in its previous four games, Drouin seemed the logical choice to get the call up.
Still, after the events that transpired between Drouin and the Lightning organization, who could have foreseen this conclusion two months ago?
With a new lease on his NHL life, Drouin did his best to make amends on Thursday, providing the game-winning goal early in the third period in the Bolts’ 4-2 victory.
Drouin started the scoring play by backchecking and stealing the puck from Patrik Elias in the neutral zone. Drouin played the puck off the boards and into the Devils’ zone for Vladislav Namestnikov, who skated toward the middle of the ice before dropping the puck behind for Drouin. With a full head of steam, Drouin skated onto the puck, drove toward the net and unleashed a wrist shot from the right dot that whistled past Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid, his third goal of the season and first since December 2.
“What I liked more, he led our team in shots. He had four shots tonight,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “I thought the first period, he was kind of getting his feet wet. He hadn’t been in an NHL game for a couple of months, but as that game went on, he got stronger and stronger. I thought that line was really good with (Namestnikov) and Killorn. I’m happy for him. We brought him back because he earned a spot down in the American League, and tonight he steps in the lineup and helps us win a hockey game. I’m really happy for him.”
For those who think Drouin might be a distraction in the locker room, the reaction from his teammates after scoring suggests quite the opposite.
“Guys were pretty pumped up for him,” Cooper said. “He’s a well-liked player on the team. They were all really happy for him.”
2. FINISHING THE JOB
The Lightning were disappointed in the way they closed out their game Tuesday against the New York Rangers. The Bolts played one of their better periods of the season in sprinting out to a 2-0 lead after the first 20 minutes. Andrej Sustr and Brian Boyle both netted goals in the first six minutes and change of the first period in what was shaping up to be a dominating performance against the Rangers.
But after going up by two, the Lightning changed their game. Their aggressive approach was replaced by a more passive, hold-the-lead mentality.
The Rangers took advantage, scoring three-straight goals to win 3-2 and send the Lightning to their second-consecutive defeat.
After going up 3-1 in the third period against New Jersey, the Bolts weren’t about to allow the same outcome two games in a row.
The Devils got a goal back midway through the third when Sergey Kalinin netted his second goal of the evening, but the Lightning clamped down the rest of the way. The Devils never had a clear look at goal over the remainder of the third period, and Valtteri Filppula closed the door with an empty-net goal in the game’s final minute.
“This was a big win for us, especially going into the third period with a lead and not getting it done last game and being able to close out the game tonight,” Lightning defenseman Matt Carle said.
The Lightning improved to 35-3-0 when leading after two periods. Their ability to close teams out once grabbing hold of the lead will be of upmost importance once the playoffs start and space on the ice reduces drastically.
3. HOME COOKING
The Lightning have been one of the best road teams in the NHL this season, their road record currently standing at 21-17-2, the 21 wins fifth most in the Eastern Conference.
If the Bolts can get one more road win on Saturday in Montreal, they’ll tie the franchise record for road wins in a season (22).
But despite the success away from Amalie Arena this season, the Lightning still wanted to secure as many home games during the playoffs as possible. The win Thursday over New Jersey was a big step in that direction, the result ensuring home ice for at least the First Round of the playoffs. If the opening-round series against either Detroit or Boston goes to a Game 7, it’ll be played at Amalie Arena, and the Bolts remember how invaluable that home-ice advantage was during Game 7 of their First Round series last year versus Detroit.
“Playing in front of our fans is a treat, so it was nice to be able to clinch it on our own accord rather than our last game kind of needing help to clinch a playoff spot,” Carle said. “It was nice to clinch a playoff spot last game, but we were all kind of hanging our heads because we lost that game. But it feels good now.”
The Lightning find themselves in the exact same situation they were in last year, finishing second in the Atlantic Division and holding home ice for the First Round. Whether they can produce a similar result to last year’s Stanley Cup Final run remains to be seen.
But it should be a fun ride no matter what.
“You look back at the year, we had a lot of expectations coming in and if you were going to sit here and say, ‘Hey, you’re going to have home ice for the first round of the playoffs?’ We’re taking that all day,” Cooper said. “Did we win the Presidents’ Trophy? No we didn’t, but we made the playoffs, we’re going to come second in our division, we’re bringing playoff hockey back to our fans in Tampa who deserve to see that again and we’re going to try to replicate what we did last year.”