TAMPA – The Tampa Bay Lightning can finally exhale a sigh of relief after clinching a playoff berth for the first time since the 2010-11 season with a 3-1 win against the Montreal Canadiens Tuesday night at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
"It's been an adverse season to say the least," captain Steven Stamkos said. "We battled through a lot of things and people probably doubted us after certain guys were injured, trades and the amount of young guys on this team. Our goal at the beginning of the year was to get into the playoffs and we accomplished that."
Even head coach Jon Cooper took a moment to savor the moment in light of the adversity faced by the team.
"The feeling you have before the game to right now, it really feels like all the games we've played bottled up into one," Cooper said. "I'm excited for what's happening to be honest; it's a really cool feeling."
The Bolts and Canadiens battled to a 1-1 tie for nearly 52 minutes before a milestone goal by a rookie turned the tide. Tyler Johnson broke free while shorthanded and beat Montreal netminder Carey Price to break the tie at 12:41. It was Johnson's fifth shorthanded marker of the season, which ties him for the NHL lead.
The game-winning goal by Johnson of the also tied him with Steven Stamkos for the Lightning rookie record of 23 goals in a season set during the 2008-09 campaign.
"I couldn't have had a great season like I had without playing with good players and a great team," Johnson said. "Clinching the playoffs was the icing on the cake."
The Canadiens got the best of the Bolts in the first period, scoring the first goal of the game and holding the lead until midway through the contest.
Mike Weaver backhanded a shot at Ben Bishop and Brendan Gallagher scored off a rebound at 10:18 of the first. Alex Galchenyuk also earned an assist on the play.
After going 0-for-5 on their past five power plays, Ryan Callahan scored the Lightning's first tally on the man advantage of the season series versus the Habs. Callahan was able to get to the front of the net and flip a backhander up and over Carey Price to knot the game at one at 9:19 of the middle frame. Callahan not only has four goals in his past four games, but has 10 points since becoming a member of the Lightning.
With 11.7 seconds left in the second Teddy Purcell scored from the slot, but the goal was immediately waived off. J.T. Brown was in the crease blocking Price's vision when the goal was scored, causing it to be disallowed.
Just seconds after learning that not only had the Washington Capitals lost in regulation to Dallas, and the New Jersey Devils lost in the ninth round of the shootout (both also needed in addition to a Lightning win to clinch a playoff spot) Johnson scored his fifth shorthanded goal of the season to give the Bolts a 2-1 advantage with 7:19 left in regulation.
"It's being in the right spot and getting lucky sometimes," Johnson said. "I usually am on the penalty kill with [Ondrej] Palat and he usually opens up the ice for me and we work very well together."
A little more than two minutes remained in the contest when Douglas Murray landed an illegal check to the head on Michael Kostka that left him momentarily motionless on the ice. Team trainers then called for a stretcher, but as it was being brought out Kostka managed to skate off the ice. Murray was assessed a match penalty that put Tampa Bay on a power play to end the game.
"I said to Murray that's a dangerous play," Stamkos said. "Obviously if it warranted a five minute penalty I'm sure there will be some repercussions from the league."
"It happened in an area that it's really tough for the coach to see," Cooper said. "If the crowd's reaction as the replay was shown it didn't seem like it was legal."
Kostka underwent further evaluation after the game, but no update was given on his status.
The Bolts then solidified the Habs' fate with an empty net power-play goal from Alex Killorn for a 3-1 final.
UP NEXT – Tampa Bay continues on with their five-game homestand Thursday night against the Calgary Flames. It is the second and final meeting versus the Western Conference rival this season with the Bolts winning the first game 2-0 as Ben Bishop earned his fourth shutout of the season. The Lightning will also play the Dallas Stars at home Saturday to cap-off the week.