Tampa Bay, welcome back to the playoff party.
The Lightning secured a spot in the NHL postseason with a 2-1 victory against Pittsburgh on Thursday night in a potential playoff matchup in front of a sold-out announced crowd of 20,126 at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Tampa Bay holds the No. 5 spot in the Eastern Conference standings, three points behind the Penguins and possible home-ice advantage in the first round. The Lightning have five games remaining in the regular season; Pittsburgh has four.
With a rookie owner, rookie general manager and rookie coach, Tampa Bay managed to end a four-year playoff drought and will take part in the dance for the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2007.
"It's a long-term plan, but we're very excited to be in the playoffs this year," owner Jeff Vinik said. "Hopefully this is one step on the way to being world class, as we've talked about."
After three years of enduring the doldrums of being a downtrodden franchise, finishing in the bottom of the league standings during a tumultuous time under spotty ownership that led to off-ice soap opera drama that included plenty of mismanagement involving the roster and coaching staff, the Lightning have sailed on much smoother waters this season.
The on-ice product has been a major improvement, and the playoff spot is the first reward for a franchise that has turned things around 180 degrees from this time last year when the final days of the season were filled with nothing but uncertainty.
Now, there is a postseason date waiting for Tampa Bay once the regular season ends April 9. Instead of making tee times, the Lightning will be making game plans for a potential seven-game series when the playoffs begin April 13.
"Credit goes to the players - they battled real hard through a lot of adversity," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "But I demand more all the time, especially with the playoffs coming up."
If Thursday's battle with the Penguins is any indication, a Tampa Bay-Pittsburgh series would hold plenty of tense moments, emotional ups and downs and enough hold-your-breath plays to keep fans deeply involved in every second.
"It's not about momentum in the playoffs, it's about desperation," Boucher said. "If we play them, it will be quite a grind."
Tampa Bay jumped to a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals by Steve Downie and Marty St. Louis, who scored his 30th of the season to reach the mark for the sixth time in his career. But from there, the Lightning were under pressure as the Penguins, minus top scoring stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, started to pin the Lightning in their zone for prolonged shifts.
But Dwayne Roloson, who was brought in to provide Tampa Bay with the kind of goaltending he showed Thursday, was the big difference, stopping 14 shots in the second period and 16 in the third. The only blemish was a Mike Rupp shot that floated from the far right boards, off the shoulder of Lightning defenseman Mike Lundin and into the net over Roloson's shoulder 4:31 into the third.
In closing out the clinching victory, Tampa Bay played with a playoff intensity that showed in 32 registered hits and 22 blocked shots to keep the Penguins at bay. And when the final buzzer blared, the players skated to center ice and raised their sticks in salute to the home crowd, having secured a playoff spot in front of their fans for the first time in franchise history.
"It's nice to get back," St. Louis said of earning a playoff spot. "And it's nice to get this out of the way. That was a playoff game tonight."
But it's nothing compared to what is to come once the playoffs open officially, with Tampa Bay again a participant
"We've had a few tough years here, so to get back this year ... it's been a great year so far, but this is the beginning," captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "The first step is to make the playoffs."
Tribune's 3 Stars
1. Lightning G Dwayne Roloson - Stopped 36 shots, including 30 in the final two periods
2. Lightning RW Marty St. Louis - Scored the decisive goal on four shots and was plus-1
3. Lightning RW Steve Downie - Was a physical force and chipped in with an important goal