After a pair of victories by the Carolina Hurricanes didn’t provide assistance in helping clinch a playoff berth earlier in the week, the Tampa Bay Lightning went out and did it by themselves.
Martin St. Louis scored his 30th goal of the season and Dwayne Roloson pitched in a 36-save effort to help the Lightning earn a spot in the postseason for the first time since 2006-07 following a 2-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins Thursday night.
“It means a lot,” Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier said. “We had some rough years and to come back this year, we set our goal to make the playoffs, and we did.”
Tampa Bay, which trailed Pittsburgh by five points for the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference standings entering Thursday, is now just three points behind the Penguins, who could potentially face Tampa Bay in a first-round playoff series two weeks from now.
“It would be an exciting matchup,” Pittsburgh forward Jordan Staal said. “I thought this was a back-and-forth game with a lot of chances.”
Mike Rupp scored the lone goal for the Penguins, who have now dropped two straight games following a four-game win streak.
“Our team has to do a better job,” Staal added. “We need to create more chances and get more shots.”
Steve Downie also scored for the Lightning, winners of three straight.
Penguins center Sidney Crosby, out due to injury for nearly three months with a concussion, resumed skating with his teammates in practice. The Pittsburgh captain, out since Jan. 6., is not ready to participate in full practices, although a return to action in time for the postseason has not been completely ruled out.
Ryan Malone, meanwhile, returned for the first time after missing 21 games due to a mid-body injury.
Downie opened the scoring at 4:51 of the first period and Tampa Bay went up 2-0 nearly six minutes later after St. Louis roofed a shot at 10:13 past Pittsburgh net minder Marc-Andre Fleury. Vincent Lecavalier got the play started along the boards, clearing out a Pittsburgh defender and allowing St. Louis to beat Fleury up high beneath the crossbar.
Lecavalier has six assists and eight points during a six-game points streak and has 12 assists and 24 points in his last 23 games.
Both goaltenders dueled at each end of the ice for the better part of two and a half periods following Tampa Bay’s opening pair of goals.
Roloson posted a shutout for nearly 45 minutes prior to Rupp’s goal, keeping the Penguins scoreless with a number of saves from in close. Fleury was just as good, especially late in the game, stopping Malone on a breakaway approximately midway through the frame and denying St. Louis with a sprawling glove save while poached at the top of the crease.
“Rollie played solid,” Lightning head coach Guy Boucher said. “He’s been really good for us and he knows how to take the pressure.”
Rupp’s goal at 4:31 in the final period cut the deficit in half. He sent a high wrist shot from above the left circle past Roloson to the far post to make it 2-1.
Nate Thompson nearly increased the Lightning lead to two with five and half minutes to play, but Fleury came up big with a pair of saves, first to deny the Lightning forward on an odd-man rush and again on a second attempt.
“They had a couple of flurries around our net,” Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma said. “They had some good opportunities to score goals and our goaltender had to make some big saves.”
Thursday’s win earned Tampa Bay its 95th point of the season, which marks the second-highest single-season total in franchise history. The Lightning reached 106 points in 2003-04 on their way to the team’s first Stanley Cup championship.
Following the game, the team’s owner, Jeff Vinik, entered the locker room and congratulated the players and Boucher with a series of hand shakes.
“I think it’s an organizational thing,” Boucher said. “Mr. Vinik came to shake our hands right after and that represents what he means.”
“This is just the beginning,” Lecavalier added. “We made it into the playoffs, and next we have the first round. We’re taking it one step at a time.”
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