by Jon Jordan on 03/31/11 at 11:16 AM ET
It’s been a rough go of late.
Despite the mini-revival of a two-game win streak, the month of March has been a tough one for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Before Saturday’s win in Raleigh and Tuesday’s at home over the Hurricanes and Senators, respectively, the Bolts had managed just two wins since February, the offense had dried up and injuries put several key contributors on the shelf. March has seen the Lightning slip from second in the conference and the top spot in the Southeast Division to fifth in the East and a divisional also-ran to the Washington Capitals.
But with two points tonight, Tampa Bay can secure its first playoff berth in four years and, though any lingering effects of that torturous time period have been all but washed away by this season’s overall success and a rejuvenated sense of organizational pride, by comparison, maybe the recent skid hasn’t been all that bad after all.
So much has happened to this franchise and its fan base since its last postseason appearance – a first-round exit at the hands of the New Jersey Devils, four games to two in the 2007 Stanley Cup playoffs.
There’s no sense in rehashing any or all of that here. Block out what you can, Lightning fans, but you remember…
But after every embarrassing story, bonehead transaction or damaging trade rumor over the last four years, you deserve what’s potentially on tap tonight as your Bolts host the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Though you wouldn’t have complained had Carolina lost to Montreal last night, which would also have assured the Lightning a playoff spot, you have to be excited about the opportunity to watch this season’s quick turnaround for your team culminate in a playoff clincher at home.
And, with increased expectations coming from this year’s early success meaning any celebration on the team’s part will more than likely be somewhat tempered, that doesn’t mean yours has to.
Should the Bolts come through this evening, raise a glass, pop a bottle, hug a stranger. Do whatever feels right. Again, you deserve it.
The playoff ticket could have been punched on Tuesday but those pesky ‘Canes didn’t cooperate then either, outlasting Washington via shootout.
Tonight, the Lightning have full control of their playoff destiny. Win and in. And you have to like the sound of that.
Of course, the opponent this evening, might have something to say about whatever celebratory plans you have in store. The Penguins, who are looking more and more like Tampa Bay’s eventual first-round dance partner, are coming off a disappointing 5-2 home loss to Philadelphia and look to put a stranglehold on the fourth and final home ice position in the Eastern Conference standings. With five games remaining to Tampa Bay’s six, Pittsburgh holds a five-point lead over the Lightning heading into tonight.
And the Pens, though hobbled without the services of superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, have been great since a stretch of losing eight of ten in February. Tuesday’s loss snapped a 9-2-2 run for Pittsburgh, who has made due with several call-ups from AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and a heavier reliance on a host of role players in the absence of their 1-2 scoring punch amid several other injuries this season.
The identity and ability of the team on the other bench tonight aside, the Lightning have the long-awaited chance to put their hands around a tangible measure of team success. Making their return to the NHL’s second season official in front of the home crowd would mean so much to the fans that have stayed true to their club through the rottenness of recent seasons and, let’s be honest, though they may attempt to steer clear of being overly excited about simply getting in (at least visibly anyway), a win tonight would be something special for everyone in the Tampa Bay room as well – just due for time served in seasons past, in some cases, and reward for the persistence of all this year.
A few were here at the peak of the Lightning’s glory in 2004.
Some have toiled in obscurity elsewhere before joining the organization.
Others, only just beginning their careers, are on the brink of their first taste of the postseason.
And a couple of others still, sit ready to put past playoff experience to good use this year with a team that hasn’t been a part of that kind of meaningful competition in a long time.
If it doesn’t happen tonight, that would be a real shame. Tampa Bay won’t play at home again until a week from tomorrow, when the Florida Panthers come to town. With a three-game road trip between tonight and the home finale and three games for Carolina as well in that span, one would think that the Lightning’s magic number of two will have disappeared by then, by some combination or other.
Still, here they sit, with a chance tonight to satisfy goal number one under the new regime, at home, in front of their own fans.
Take care of business against Pittsburgh and the lasting memory of March will be the satisfaction of a playoff berth, rather than the series of questions brought on by the previous slump.
Earn the two points this evening and any woeful remnants of dismal years gone by are dead, once and for all.
A win tonight for the Lightning means playoff hockey will indeed return to Tampa and, though the downturn of the past few weeks may have shown some chinks in the armor of this rebuilt soldier, that was nothing compared to the troubles of four seasons gone by.
Only fitting that the Bolts get the chance to reward the home crowd in person, isn’t it?
It hasn’t been easy for Lightning fans in recent seasons but the excitement of a return to the Stanley Cup playoffs awaits with one more win.
Here’s hoping they have reason to celebrate just that at home tonight.
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