TAMPA — At some point, it might make sense for the Lightning to just throw up their collective hands in amused amazement.
Already without No. 1 goaltender Ben Bishop, Tampa Bay suited up for Friday’s regular season home finale without leading scorer Valtteri Filppula and top pairing defenseman Sami Salo. Then during the game, the Lightning’s top defenseman Victor Hedman and their new leading scorer Ondrej Palat went to the locker room with injuries and did not return.
C’mon, really? “I’m beyond that,’’ Lightning head coach Jon Cooper joked. “It’s unreal, you sit here and watch guys, and they always seem to walk by in front of you (on the bench) and I’m about to ask, “Where are you . . .’ and then I see (medical trainer) Tom Mulligan walk by, and it’s like “Well, there he goes,’ so my postgame speech tonight I gave in the trainer’s room.’’
But as they have done all year, Tampa Bay looked for the next-man up on Friday and found a way to come out on top in a 3-2 victory against Columbus to pick up a franchise record tying 25th home victory of the season in an announced crowd of 18,686 at The Forum.
Eric Brewer scored twice while Palat added his 23rd of the season before leaving the game early in the third period.
The victory moves the Lightning into second place in the Atlantic Division standings, one point ahead of Montreal. A Canadiens’ regulation loss on Saturday to the New York Rangers or a Lightning victory in Sunday’s season finale at Washington clinches home ice for Tampa Bay in the first round playoff matchup against Montreal.
To get to that point, however, Tampa Bay had to win Friday’s game and were able to do just that with rookie Kristers Gudlevskis stopping 36 shots while making his NHL debut in goal and in the process becoming part of history. The 21-year-old netminder became the first player to appear in the East Coast Hockey League, the American Hockey League, the NHL and the Olympics in the same season. Gudlevskis started the year with Florida in the ECHL before moving up to Syracuse in the AHL. At the Olympics in February, he became a household name after making 55 saves for Latvia in a near upset of Canada in a 2-1 loss in the quarterfinal.
Adding his first career victory in his first career NHL game adds to the storybook path Gudlevskis has followed in the past year since being selected in the fifth round of the draft.
“This is my biggest dream, and it came true,’’ Gudlevskis said. “Probably, I’m going to wake up soon, so, I want to try to enjoy the moment.’’
Another rookie, Cedric Paquette, stepped into the lineup to make his NHL debut as well, picking up his first career point with an assist on Brewer’s first goal, and then being tapped on the shoulder with 1:41 to go to take a defensive zone faceoff while protecting a one-goal lead. A couple of icings forced Paquette to remain on the ice until the end of the game, and the 20-year-old would up with 7:27 of ice time in the third period, more than he had in the first two periods combined.
“I felt pretty good, I wasn’t expecting to play good like that, I just wanted to play my game,’’ said Paquette, who won 9-of-14 faceoffs in 12:46 of ice time. “I feel that (faceoffs) are a part of my game that I can be on the ice in important minutes at the end of game, so Coop puts me on the ice, and that gives me a lot of confidence.’’
Perhaps the Lightning have now found some confidence in their goaltender, as well, after back-to-back strong performances by Anders Lindback and now a strong debut by Gudlevskis as they head into next week’s playoffs uncertain of who will start Game 1.
“Whoever the two goalies were (in the postseason) we thought that some guys needed some reps before the playoffs,’’ Cooper said. “If Gudlevskis needed to play we didn’t want his first game to be a playoff game. We wanted him to feel the environment, get this out of the way, and he was up to the task. He was outstanding.’’