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Lightning clinch home ice with win against Panthers

by Alain Poupart /

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Forward Steven Stamkos ended his scoring drought Saturday and helped the Tampa Bay Lightning clinch home-ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Stamkos had two goals and an assist, Ben Bishop made 34 saves for his fourth shutout and the Lightning defeated the Florida Panthers 4-0 at BB&T?Center to clinch at least second place in the Atlantic Division.

"I knew if I kept working hard that things were eventually going to go in, so I just tried to shoot the puck a little more today and got some nice passes and those ones go in," Stamkos said. "Two good passes, just trying to pick the corners and get shots on net there. That's been absent in my game the last couple games. When you keep doing things right, you're going to get rewarded for it."

Tampa Bay (48-24-8) tied the Montreal Canadiens atop the Atlantic with 104 points and holds the tiebreaker advantage with five more regulation and overtime victories (46-41). Montreal, which plays against the Panthers at BB&T???Center on Sunday, has a game in hand.

The Lightning, who end the regular season with home games against the New Jersey Devils on Thursday and the Boston Bruins on Saturday, ended their final road trip at 2-2-1. They were 18-16-7 away from Amalie Arena.

The loss eliminated the Panthers (36-28-15)???from playoff contention. They will miss the playoffs for the 13th time in 14 seasons.

"It (stinks),"???Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson said. "There's no real words to describe how bad you feel to end a season like that. You came so close. Guys worked so hard. We put together a group of guys that really enjoyed being around each other and really came to play for each other every single night. It's really frustrating. To play, what, 79 games now and it's difficult. It's not fun to be in a position like this when you're so close."

Stamkos ended a seven-game goal drought, his longest since an eight-game stretch Nov. 30-Dec. 13, 2009. He hadn't scored since a 3-1 victory against the Detroit Red Wings on March 20. His goals gave him 42 on the season, tied for second in the NHL???with New York Rangers forward Rick Nash, who scored once Saturday in a 6-1 victory against the New Jersey Devils.

"You don't keep those guys down for very long,"???Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "Whatever it was, seven games he hadn't scored, he gets his chances. The one thing with him I think he was getting frustrated, he was letting it get to him a little bit. It's that kid, when you give him an inch, he'll take a mile. It was great to see him bust out, especially when it was a pretty tight game and there weren't a lot of scoring chances either way. For him to get those two, that was great for us."

Stamkos has 18 goals in his past 17 games against Florida, helping Tampa Bay go 14-2-1 during that stretch.

Ryan Callahan and Tyler Johnson each had a goal and an assist. Johnson was back in the lineup after missing three games because of an upper-body injury.

Roberto Luongo, who turned 36 on Saturday, made 18 saves for the Panthers.

"Disappointed," Luongo said. "We were right there. It's going to be a lot of what-ifs in the next week or so. I???wish I???would have played better down the stretch for the guys and maybe steal a game or two more, but unfortunately it didn't happen."

Florida was shut out for the fourth time. The Panthers' previous seven losses were decided by one goal.

Bishop, whose previous shutouts this season came against the Buffalo Sabres, Chicago Blackhawks and Montreal Canadiens, extended his Lightning record with his 38th victory of the season.

"Bishop played really well, kept us in the game,"?????????Stamkos said. "The end of a long trip and we've got a lot of guys playing a lot of minutes that maybe aren't used to it, so I thought it was a pretty solid effort to come in here and get a win like that and get some confidence. That clinches home ice in the first round for us, so we were playing for something."

The Panthers lost despite outshooting the Lightning 34-22.

"We didn't play well enough,"?????????Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. "When there's four games left, you've got to play your best hockey. I thought we played real well lately, but tonight wasn't good enough. We didn't work hard enough. We didn't have 20 guys competing. We had probably 15 or 16 and that's not enough to win."

The Panthers had the better scoring chances when they outshot the Lightning 7-6 in a scoreless first period.

Tampa Bay forward Cedric Paquette hit the crossbar at the end of Florida power play early in the second before Stamkos opened the scoring at 6:10.

Stamkos scored on the power play from below the top of the left circle when he one-timed Johnson's cross-ice pass. He scored again at 11:19 of the second after a Florida turnover in its defensive zone. After stealing the puck, Callahan fed Stamkos at the right dot and his wrist shot beat Luongo high to the short side.

"You give that guy two opportunities like that, I?????????mean let him walk in from the slot basically. There's a good chance he's going to score,"?????????Gudbranson said. "He's an excellent player. You can't give a guy like that opportunities like that."

Callahan made it 3-0 at 1:03 of the third when his wrist shot from the right dot trickled through between Luongo's body and his right arm. Johnson made it 4-0 at 18:13.

"That was a hard-fought game,"?????????Cooper said. "It's pretty even hockey after one. Getting the lead is huge. (Bishop) held us in there a little bit. It was big to not give up any going into the third. I?????????think that third one was a back-breaker for them."

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