Game 1,135 of the NHL regular season was game 76 for the Tampa Bay Lightning and a variety of circumstances led to it being billed as their biggest one of the year. For starters, there was a scenario, featuring factors taking place far from Tampa Bay that might have been considered somewhat unlikely, that could see the Lightning actually secure a berth in the postseason. The more pressing issue at hand was the head-to-head match-up with Montreal. The likely first-round opponents are still squabbling over points that will determine who has home ice in that first round. The Lightning came in facing the possibility of being anywhere from tied to three or even four points back of the Canadiens. Even with the coveted game-in hand, closing that gap with only six games remaining in the regular season would not have been an easy task. As it is, with the win, the Lightning are actually in the driver's seat right now. And, BONUS! thanks to the Dallas Stars winning convincingly on the road at Washington and the Buffalo Sabres overcoming the New Jersey Devils in a 9-round shootout, they no longer have to worry about the business of clinching a berth.
"The wave of emotions right now, it's just one game but it's really the 76 games all bottled up into one. What you are really striving for is to win the Stanley Cup but you can not win the cup if you don't get into the playoffs." - Lightning head coach Jon Cooper
The sense of urgency translated to the play on the ice and the Lightning started strong, carrying play through the first half of the opening period. However, it was Montreal that got on the board first with Brendan Gallagher scoring at 10:18 on assists from Alex Galchenyuk and Mike Weaver
That goal seemed to energize the Canadiens and they were the stronger team in the second half of the period. Still, it ended with them carrying just the 1-0 advantage.
As the period was winding down, it appeared the Lightning had taken the lead when Teddy Purcell scored with only 11 seconds remaining. However, the goal was disallowed due to what the officials deemed as contact between Lightning forward JT Brown and Montreal goaltender Carey Price, even though replays after the fact showed the puck was clearly behind Price before Brown made contact.
Price was incredible all night, making several spectacular saves and stopping 30 of the 32 shots he faced. Ben Bishop was no slouch for the Lightning, turning away 25 of the 26 shots against him.
"I thought both goalies were outstanding. I thought for one game Price might have been the difference, I thought there was a reason he went to the Olympics and did what he did there. He's not a good goalie, he's an elite goalie but I feel that we've got his adversary right there on the other side. - Cooper.
The teams entered the third period tied at two.
In the third, the intensity was dialed up and so were the penalties. Four calls were whistled against Montreal and two against Tampa Bay.
At 12:41 with the Lightning on the penalty kill, Tyler Johnson stole the puck at the Canadiens blue line and skated in to score unassisted what would eventually be the game winner, tying him for the league lead with five on the season.
"Just being in the right spot and getting lucky sometimes. I'm usually out there with Pally (Palat) and he has tremendous vision and opens up the ice for me. We work very well together and you just get that opportunity, and lucky for me they go in sometimes." - Johnson,
An ugly and scary moment marred the finish when with just over two minutes remaining, Montreal's Douglas Murray elbowed Michael Kostka in the head, sending him to the ice where he laid motionless. A stretcher was called for but eventually Kostka made to his feet and, with assistance, left the ice under his own power.
"He's being evaluated right now. I don't know how he skated off after so hopefully he's okay. I got one look at it on the big screen, it's in an area that's tough to see for the coaches. If the crowd's reaction was anything after they saw it, then it seems that it was illegal. Those are the hits you want to take out of the game." - Cooper
The Lightning cashed in on the resultant power play, with Alex Killorn potting the empty netter, getting help from Palat on the play.
"Obviously that was our goal coming into the season, making the playoffs. Once you're in there, anything can happen but right now we can't stop. We want that home ice advantage. We just have to finish up strong and have some momentum to carry into the playoffs." - Johnson
The Lightning are now 42-25-9 and currently in second place in the Atlantic Division, They will continue this final homestand of the regular season on Thursday when they host the Calgary Flames.
- This is the seventh time qualifying for the playoffs in the franchise's history and the first since the 2010-11 season.
- Tyler Johnson recorded his 23rd goal of the season, tying Steven Stamkos for the Lightning rookie record.
- The Bolts finish the regular season series against Montreal with a 3-0-1 record.
- This is the only meeting this season between the two teams that was settled in regulation time.
- The Lightning scored twice on the power play; neither team had managed a power play goal against the other previously this season.
- Bishop and Price have started all four games and came into this one with identical save percentages of .962 compiled during the previous three.
- On the occasion of Johnson netting his fifth shorthanded goal of the season, it's worth noting once again that the Lightning didn't have any all of last season.
- Valtteri Filppula's personal point streak ended at 12 games.
- This game broke a streak of six straight games for the Lightning that were decided by a single goal.
- This was Steven Stamkos' first game against the Canadiens this season.
- Palat has been named NHL Rookie of the Month for March. He led all rookies with 16 points (five goals, 11 assists) in 16 games.
- The Lightning honored 2014 Winter Paralympic sled hockey Gold Medalist, and Tampa native, Declan Farmer tonight. Farmer participated in a ceremonial puck drop prior to the game and signed autographs during the first intermission. He has been a member of the Lightning Sled Hockey Team since 2007. Farmer, 16 and a sophomore at Berkley Prep in Tampa, led Team USA in goals with seven and points with 12 in Sochi, Russia as they became the first team in Paralympic history to win back-to-back Gold Medals in sled hockey. He scored two goals in Team USA's 3-0 victory over rival Canada in the semi-finals to advance to the Gold Medal Game. It was the bilateral amputee's first appearance at the Paralympic Games.
- The Lightning also honored Mike Wells as the 36th Lightning Community Hero of the year during the first period of tonight's game. Wells, who received a $50,000 donation from the Lightning Foundation and the Lightning Community Heroes program, will donate the money to the Ryan Wells Foundation, the Pinellas Education Foundation and the CWV/SNI Foundation. Wells has endured extreme adversity and found a way to turn it into a positive. After his son, Ryan, passed away in a tragic car accident, Mike Wells made it his mission to help those who have similar dreams to his son achieve their goals. Wells set up the Ryan Wells Foundation to help Tampa Bay area youth follow their dreams of becoming professional chefs. Wells has provided funding and scholarships, through the Ryan Wells Foundation, for over 50 students to attended culinary arts school. In addition, Wells has donated money to high schools to improve cooking equipment and purchase food. The Ryan Wells Foundation received a Pinellas Education Foundation Business Partner of the Year award and the Ford Next Generation Learning Recognition award in 2013. Additionally, the foundation was a finalist in the education category for the Tampa Bay Business Journal's Non-profit Awards.