TAMPA — They're in.
Some of them didn't know it until after Tuesday's 3-1 win over the Canadiens. But they saw the announcement hanging over their heads on the gargantuan Forum video screens — they were a playoff team.
“That's when I found out,” said Lightning rookie center Tyler Johnson, whose short-handed goal won it.
There was no oversized celebration. There is still work to do. Anyway, they don't do champagne in hockey until it can be poured into the Stanley Cup. You've got the wrong game.
“Well, not unless you're in baseball,” Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop said. “They celebrate every time. I would love to adopt that in hockey.”
They're in, but satisfaction is measured in tiny ways, like Wednesday morning, when Bolts coach Jon Cooper, who molded this winner, was texted a picture of the NHL standings. The Lightning had an 'x' next to their name for a clinched playoff spot.
“Excitement was definitely an emotion, but definitely relief was a big part,” Cooper said.
Veteran Lightning winger Ryan Malone is 34. He has played in 43 playoff games in his NHL career, including 18 when the Lightning came within a win of the Stanley Cup finals in 2011. For the first time since then, they're in.
“When you're in, you get goose bumps thinking about it,” Malone said. “I get them even now. You never know how many chances you get. You never know what you can do.”
Who knows what the Lightning can do. An opening-round series with Montreal seems a certainty. Home ice remains up for grabs. The Lightning have the edge for now, and maybe some added fury after normally clean Canadiens defenseman Douglas Murray's gangster hit that knocked out Bolts defenseman Mike Kostka late in Tuesday's game. It's never too early for playoff subplots.
Who knows what the Lightning can do.
But it's time to consider what they've already done.
This team finished next to last in its conference last season.
It wasn't expected to do better this time around.
Vinny Lecavalier left town. He was replaced by this Valtteri Filppula guy from Detroit.
No one knew what to expect from Bishop in his first NHL turn at No. 1 goalie.
Steven Stamkos went down in early November, for months.
At one time, the Lightning were playing 11 rookies.
Marty St. Louis asked for a trade and received one.
These Bolts won anyway.
“I'm very proud,” Stamkos said. “I think everyone in this room is proud as a group of the adversity that we've overcome this year.”
Now we know about this Filppula guy, and how. Now we know Bishop saved necks and games. Now we know how Tyler Johnson worked out, and Ondrej Palat, and most of the other rookies who jumped over the boards.
“I think when Stammer got hurt, a lot of people were waiting to see how we responded,” Malone said.
And when Marty left town ...
“We could have hung our heads,” rookie defenseman Radko Gudas said.
They had all the excuses they needed.
They never used one.
“I think it's human nature to doubt, but we've got a pretty special group,” Cooper said. “They weren't going to take no for an answer.”
“Obviously it's not the champagne spraying of the baseball world,” Stamkos said. Hockey teams don't raise flags for simply making the playoffs. Why would they? More than half the teams in the NHL make the postseason.
But who gave the Lightning half a chance at even that?
Split a beer at least, guys. You've earned it.