The Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Buffalo Sabres 4-2 in the season finale at Amalie Arena in Tampa Sunday evening.
It’s been a while since the Lightning had to “play out a string,” even a string as short as one game, but it hasn’t been that long. Having been eliminated from playoff consideration the night before, thanks to the Toronto Maple Leafs rallying in the third period to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-3, tonight’s game had an air of uncomfortable familiarity.
Not nearly as bad as it used to feel during some of the really dark years in this franchise’s history when postseason play wasn’t even a realistic aspiration, but with nothing at stake, there was a sense of “oh yeah, I remember this; I don’t care for it,” in the building; something akin to being cut from a team following three years as a varsity starter after making the roster as a walk-on.
"It's always nice to win a hockey game but ultimately we didn't get to finish what we wanted to do here. We didn't make the playoffs and that is such a huge disappointment for us. We had a couple of guys in here that had a great season. I'm really proud of those guys. You have got to commend the fans. All season long they were with us and it was a great season. At the end of the day, it's a bad feeling in your stomach when you don't make the playoffs, and it makes a long summer."
— Lightning defenseman Braydon Coburn
As might be expected, once the puck dropped, the intensity level was somewhat higher than a preseason exhibition, but, nowhere near the kind of energy that was present during the skein of “must-wins” played since February.
Buffalo opened the scoring at 13:56 of the first when Wiliam Carrier’s wrister sailed over Bolts goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy’s right shoulder. Alexander Nylander and Zach Bogosian picked up assists on the play. The 1-0 Buffalo lead would carry into the second period, where things began to heat up.
The Lightning tied the game at 5:59 with Brayden Point deflecting Victor Hedman’s shot. Jake Dotchin collected the secondary assist. They took the lead at 12:20 thanks to Braydon Coburn converting a nice pass from Vladislav Namestnikov to score shorthanded. Alex Killorn also assisted.
The Lightning led 2-1 heading into the final period of the season, which played out as a pretty loose and sloppy 20 minutes. The Sabres tied it up at 11:17 on a goal from Evander Kane with Brian Gionta and Ryan O’Reilly chipping in with helpers.
As time dwindled, Point struck again, his shot deflecting off the skate of Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen and rendering Buffalo netminder Linus Ullmark helpless at 18:36. Nikita Kucherov and Anton Stralman provided assistance.
Hedman capped things off, notching an empty netter on a slap shot from deep in the Lightning zone that crossed the line with one second remaining. Stralman and Point picked up the assists on that one.
“I don’t know. It’s hard to digest right now because it’s been less than 24 hours since we’ve known that we weren’t going to play after tonight. All I can say is there was a time in early February where we were not relevant at all. This team found a way to make themselves relevant through game 81. Just to watch the crowd support at a 5:00 game on a Sunday afternoon on a beautiful day while The Masters is going on. The place is jam packed and nobody left and everybody stayed till the very end. There’s a love affair between the team and our fans. I was just proud to be standing there behind the bench, The players, they made the team relevant during the last two and a half months of the season, but, in saying that, come five months from now everybody’s 0-0-0. But, there’s a lot of fight in that group and you’ve got to say a lot of that group will be back here next year and it’s great to be a part of that.”
— Lightning head coach Jon Cooper
The Lightning finish the 2016-17 season at 41-30-10, good for 92 points and a 5th place finish in the Atlantic Division. They’ll be in action again when they open training camp again, some time around the middle of September in Brandon.
Stay tuned to Raw Charge while we follow the Lightning system players in the Syracuse Crunch and Kalamazoo Wings into the post-season!
Tomorrow, we will post a desktop download of RxlandS’s “Thank You Lightning” graphic at the top of this article for loyal Raw Charge fans who have stuck with us all year!