After three seasons of being on the outside of the playoff party, the Tampa Bay Lightning will have to wait at least one more day for an invitation to this year's postseason bonanza.
The Lightning did their part Tuesday night to try to clinch a playoff spot for the first time since 2007, knocking off Ottawa 5-2 in front of a boisterous announced crowd of 16,626 at the St. Pete Times Forum. The Lightning won consecutive games for the first time since a three-game winning streak Feb.23-27. The victory reduced Tampa Bay's magic number to clinch a postseason berth to two points because Carolina beat Washington 3-2 in a shootout earlier in the night.
Tampa Bay's next chance to clinch a spot comes tonight when the Hurricanes host Montreal in Raleigh, N.C. A loss in regulation for Carolina would officially put Tampa Bay in the postseason. Otherwise, the Lightning need a victory on Thursday against Pittsburgh - in a potential first-round playoff preview - to punch a ticket to the postseason.
But more important to the Lightning on Tuesday was taking the necessary steps to return to the style of play that put them on the verge of the playoffs in the first place - playing a hard-nosed style in order to outwork their opponents by winning puck battles, putting shots on goal and crashing the net.
That's exactly the formula put to use against Ottawa as Marty St. Louis and Dominic Moore each scored twice, and Steven Stamkos notched his 44th of the season to ice the game with 33.9 seconds left. Simon Gagne and Dana Tyrell each had a pair of assists, and Dwayne Roloson stopped 31 shots.
Taking care of business, however, doesn't mean there wasn't a little scoreboard watching taking place on the bench.
"We were kind of peeking up every once in a while to see how (Carolina's) game was going," captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "But I thought we played a pretty complete game; everybody played the system well and it showed.
"I think we got back to that on Saturday (in Carolina) and again tonight and we want to keep building on this now."
During a difficult stretch this month, which included a pair of four-game winless streaks that saw the Lightning lose any hope of a division title, Tampa Bay's game slipped. The work ethic dropped, the relentlessness disappeared and the gritty play the coaching staff preaches evolved into too much of a finesse game as the Lightning went 2-6-4 from March 1-25.
The first two goals Tuesday were nearly textbook of the way the Lightning want to play, as strong work along the backboards coupled with two Tampa Bay players in front of the net led to St. Louis banging in a loose puck on three opportunities to open the scoring at 3:15 of the second.
That was followed four minutes later when Moore came hustling in to push a puck over the line that appeared to be covered by Ottawa goaltender Curtis McElhinney but was allowed to stand at 7:25.
"This is the way we score our goals," Lightning coach Guy Boucher. "If you look at the goals we scored against Carolina last game and the goals we scored tonight, it's exactly what we want to do."
St. Louis finished off a nice feed from Gagne to make it 3-0 at 5:48 of the third, and Moore scored his second of the night by throwing a puck on net for a 4-1 lead at 11:27. After Ottawa scored shorthanded - the 16th shorthanded goal Tampa Bay has allowed this season - Stamkos was able to break a six-game goalless drought to pull even with Anaheim's Corey Perry for the league lead.
"I guess that makes up for the ones that haven't gone in lately," said Stamkos, who had eight shots on goal and attempted six others. "But I'm really confident in my game right now. I feel strong out there, my speed is good and I'm driving the puck to the net. We've been mixing and matching the lines, so I think everyone is getting their confidence back, and I think that's important.
"And sometimes, that's all it takes is a goal like that (into an empty net) so I feel confident and ready for the next game."
Tribune's 3 Stars
1. Lightning RW Marty St. Louis – Scored twice to go with five shots on goal
2. Lightning C Dominic Moore – Scored twice and was a plus-two
3. Lightning LW Simon Gagne – Set up both goals by St. Louis