The 2014-15 regular season comes down to one game for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Through 81 battles, Tampa Bay has already clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Lightning have wrapped up home-ice advantage for the First Round.
Now, the Bolts will try to close out the regular season as Atlantic Division champions.
A win for the Lightning tonight over a desperate Boston Bruins team at Amalie Arena coupled with a Montreal loss in regulation in Toronto would hand the Bolts just the third division title in franchise history to go with banners won in 2002-03 and the Stanley Cup championship season in 2003-04.
Boston is on the outside of the playoff chase looking in. The Bruins have to defeat Tampa Bay and hope either Pittsburgh fails to get two points at Buffalo or Ottawa loses in regulation at Philadelphia tonight to sneak in.
“We obviously don’t know what’s going to happen with Montreal tonight, but if we win and they don’t, (the division’s) ours,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “And obviously Boston’s playing to get in, and we’d like to measure ourselves against a team that is competing for their lives, just like how it’s going to be come playoff time. There’s a lot at stake and I think we realize that.”
Tampa Bay is gunning for another milestone Saturday night. One more victory and the Lightning, who have already set the franchise record for wins in a season, can reach 50 wins for the first time ever.
“We’re sitting at 49 wins. It’d be pretty cool to get to 50,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper when asked what his goals were for the last game of the regular season. “…Ultimately, as a staff, how are we going to be best prepared to put our best foot forward for Game 1…We can practice all we want, but this is our last game situation that can help us for that time. We are going to try and round our game and be better today than we were yesterday and make sure we put ourselves in the best position to succeed in Game 1.”
WHITTLING THE LIST
The Lightning could play one of three teams in the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Detroit, Ottawa and Pittsburgh all remain in play, the New York Islanders having been eliminated last night when they defeated the Penguins 3-1 and secured at least third place in the Metropolitan Division.
If the Lightning finish second in the Atlantic either with a loss tonight to Boston or by Montreal getting a point in Toronto, the Bolts would play the third-place finisher in the division, either Detroit or Ottawa.
If the Lightning win the Atlantic, they would play the better of the two Wild Card teams, which could be Detroit, Ottawa or Pittsburgh.
The Lightning also have a chance to eliminate Boston from the playoff chase with a win tonight, the Bruins being a team the Bolts have struggled with in recent times. Tampa Bay snapped a 10-game losing streak to Boston with a 5-3 win at Amalie Arena on March 22.
“I think any team in the league would love to knock a team like this out because of how dangerous they can be come playoff time,” Stamkos said. “I think you look at L.A. and you look at Boston, those are the teams that no matter where they finish, if they get into the playoffs, anything can happen because of the personnel that they have, the experience they have.”
60 FOR 40
Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop is one win and 60 minutes away from reaching the 40-win mark, the first time the 28-year-old will have achieved that feat.
Earlier this month, Bishop set a franchise record and career best with his 38th victory in a 4-0 shutout of the Florida Panthers (April 4).
“It doesn’t mean much to be honest,” Bishop said. “Obviously, it’s a nice number I guess, but it’s just going to be important to go out and play well, kind of get ready for the playoffs. But, no, I’m not really thinking about that.”
PLAYOFF DRESS REHEARSAL
Bishop compared tonight’s game against Boston to trying to close out an opponent in a playoff series.
The Lightning are expecting Boston to put forth its best effort to try to make the playoffs, the same way a team trailing in a playoff series will try to stave off elimination.
Tampa Bay’s challenge tonight is to finish off the Bruins.
“It’s an elimination game for them,” Bishop said. “It’s kind of like playing a, you’re trying to close a team out in the playoffs because they’re all or nothing. I think it’s going to be good practice for us, and obviously they’re going to be fired up so it’s going to be important for us to come out and get a good start and match their intensity.”
Stamkos said tonight’s playoff-level intensity should help prepare the Lightning for what they’ll see next week.
“They’re going to be coming at us hard,” Stamkos said. “This is their season on the line tonight. (There’s) probably no better team to play to get into that playoff style than a team like Boston because of the style that they play and obviously how good of a team they are.”