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Plenty of clinching scenarios in play as Bolts host Coyotes

The Lightning can clinch the Atlantic Division and the Presidents' Trophy with a win tonight over Arizona

by Bryan Burns / TampaBayLightning.com

A trifecta of achievements could occur tonight for the Tampa Bay Lightning with a victory over the Arizona Coyotes at AMALIE Arena (7:30 p.m. puck drop).

The Lightning can win their second-straight Atlantic Division title and fourth division crown in team history.

The Bolts could secure the regular season Eastern Conference crown for the third time in franchise history and lock up the top seed for the Eastern Conference playoffs.

And, most importantly, the Lightning could claim their first-ever Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's regular season champion following a victory over the Coyotes. That would give the Bolts home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.

Of course, if Tampa Bay can't come out on top tonight, it'll have nine more chances to claim all three. At 114 points currently, the Lightning are guaranteed to finish ahead of every team in the League except Boston and Calgary. Both of those teams could finish the regular season with 115 points if they win out.

 

So, any Lightning victory over the final 10 games of the regular season secures the trifecta. Or if the Bruins and Flames can't claim 19 of a possible 20 points over the final three weeks.

In essence, the Lightning are a virtual lock to finish as the NHL's best team in the regular season.
it's just a matter of when, not if.

"That's kind of what you work toward the whole regular season is you want to be first, you want to get the best advantage," said Lightning center Anthony Cirelli, who enters the Arizona game with points in eight of his last 12 games (3 goals, 5 assists). "I think it's a little bit of motivation."

But not too much motivation. 

Lightning players and coaches have been adamant this season they don't focus on all the milestones or records the team has set. Those are a by-product of their one-game-at-a-time mentality. The task each game is simple: get better. The Lightning want to keep improving each time they take the ice so their game is peaking once the postseason begins. Whatever records or achievements the team collects along the way is an added bonus.

"I don't really think we look at that too much," Tyler Johnson said about the chance to clinch the top spot in the Atlantic, East and NHL tonight. "We always just focus on how we play our game, getting ready for the playoffs. We don't have too many games left, so we've got to fine-tune everything. Arizona is a hungry team right now, so it's going to be a good test for us."

The Coyotes present a difficult challenge for the Bolts, who have faced plenty of tests down the stretch of the regular season and have passed pretty much all of them with flying colors. Arizona occupies the final wild card spot in the Western Conference but owns just a one-point lead over Minnesota, although the Coyotes have a game in hand. Arizona hasn't made the postseason since 2012, so with an opportunity to break that long drought, expect the Coyotes to come out firing.

Also, Arizona handed Tampa Bay its worst loss of the season, defeating the Lightning 7-1 at Gila River Arena all the way back on October 27, although the Bolts were playing the second half of a back-to-back set and at the end of a grueling five-game, nine-day road trip through the Western Conference.

The Coyotes have won two in a row at AMALIE Arena and have prevailed in four of the last five meetings overall between the two teams.

"They're fighting for a spot, fighting for their lives," Cirelli said. "They're a good team. They've been playing really (well) down the stretch. They're fast. They're skilled. They make plays. I think every game now is just going to be a battle. I know they're going to be desperate to win, and we've got to match it."

The Lightning have matched their opponents' desperation level of late and are playing some of the best hockey down the stretch. They're in an ideal spot. Pretty much every achievement left to claim has been secured and the team can focus on the details of their game that will make them even tougher to defeat in the postseason. They don't have to worry about fighting to get into the playoffs or fighting for playoff positioning.

Because of that, you get results like Saturday's against Washington when the Lightning matched the Capitals physicality, answered anytime the Caps challenged to tie the game and produced one of their most complete victories of the season.

"I thought that was a real solid hockey game," Johnson said. "I thought both teams played well. It's pretty close to a playoff game. I think both teams could even be a little (better), but that's the fun of it. It was a really fun game to play in, and if we continue to play like that every night, I like the way that we are."

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