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Tampa Bay Lightning End Regular Season In Style; Secure Home Ice Advantage

In the beginning of the 2013-14 season, I’m almost positive that no one (“no one” meaning hockey sports journalists in general) had the Tampa Bay Lightning finishing anywhere close to second place (101 points) behind the perennial elite Boston Bruins (President’s Trophy winner this season with 117 points) in the newly realigned Atlantic Division.  Better yet finishing third in the Eastern Conference behind the second perennial elite team in the East:  the Pittsburgh Penguins (109 points), now a member of the Metropolitan Division.  Nor finishing eighth overall in the league after only a year ago finishing third to last.

But that’s precisely what the Lightning did.

A preseason preview published in Sports Illustrated, as a matter of fact, in late September of 2013, had the Bolts finishing 12th in the East.

I know, right?  Kind of puts this season into perspective, doesn’t it?  But based on last year’s performance, who can really blame such a low-grade opinion of the Lightning’s chances in the newly realigned Atlantic Division, which featured one bonafide elite club (Boston) and three Original Six teams (Detroit, Montreal, Toronto), two of which made the playoffs last year with Boston competing for the Cup?

And with a brand new, unproven head coach Jon Cooper at the helm?  The season had a lot more questions yet to be answered than any sports writer could have predicted or thought to answer until the season started and things began to shake out.

You had only to look at last year’s far weaker performance in a far weaker division (the Southeast by a long stretch) to question the Bolts ability to raise their fortune in a much more competitive division.  It was up to Tampa Bay to make a statement that the realignment was more fortuitous than disastrous for the club.

And it wasn’t an easy statement to make.  And the Bolts, for many portions of the season, didn’t make it look easy either.  In fact, the season looked to derail at several key moments; with the loss of Steven Stamkos to injury in early November, and then later losing our newly named captain and heart of the Bolts Martin St. Louis at the trade deadline in March.  But with tenacity, character, and sheer force of will, the Lightning made something special of this season regardless, after all the setbacks and injuries, to clinch a playoff berth against the Montreal Canadiens in the divisional semifinals starting April 16 after a two-year playoff dry spell.

The seventh playoff appearance made by the Bolts in franchise history.

Even more the Bolts secured coveted home ice advantage yesterday afternoon in Washington against the Capitals in a season finale to remember; winning their fourth game in a row the Bolts won the second seed in the Atlantic outright over the Habs in the final game of the season of which to do it in.

All while struggling through a fresh new batch of injuries (like old times really at this point) as Ondrej Palat, Valtteri Filppula, and team MVP Ben Bishop were all out of action for much of the final four games.  Victor Hedman and Sami Salo also suffered injuries down the homestretch but toughed it out as game-day decisions and played in Washington.

Even Tyler Johnson, in a moment of real fear I think for the Bolts Nation, appeared to get speared in yesterday’s game against the Caps and was sidelined for a bit before coming back.  He looked to be in a great deal of pain, but, regardless of all that, returned to the game.

That’s this Tampa Bay Lightning team in a nutshell.  Tough.  Resilient.  Tenacious.  Skilled.  And full of game-day character.

Anders Lindback must be commended on his recent performances down the homestretch for the Lightning.  To say that Lindback inspires divisive responses from Lightning fans is a gross understatement.  And when Bishop went down in the opening minutes of the Toronto game on April 8, I can’t say I wasn’t sharing a collective sentiment among most Lightning fans of “oh, redacted“.

But, boy, did he prove us all wrong.  And I’m so glad he did.  We, as a collective of Lightning fans, really needed Lindy to step up the way he has, as a solid No. 2 backup goalie, and help carry this team when Bishop was down, and that’s what Lindy did.  That’s what backup goalies are supposed to do.

I would easily give Anders the lion’s share of credit for helping secure the home ice advantage in the final four games of the regular season.  Not by just doing the stellar work he did in the crease but by doing it, when the team as a whole, needed to have him do it.  That had to have helped this Lightning team’s sense of security.  A goalie can do more than just make saves, as we all know, he can also give his team a boost of confidence when its lacking.

And of course Cristers Gudlevskis did his amazing part, too, on April 11 against the Columbus Blue Jackets in his glorious NHL debut.

Great things to come from that one.  Marks my words.  Suddenly goaltending in Tampa Bay isn’t a dirty word.  Who’d have thought?

But some equal credit has to be paid to the Lightning forwards and defensemen, who I believe have played some of their best hockey in these final key games.  We didn’t see nearly the amount of turnovers or giveaways that we’ve been forced to endure for much of the season over the past few games (since losing to Calgary and Dallas at least).  Smarter decisions with the puck, without the puck.  All the while still playing physical to every man.  A huge improvement in puck management and defensive cohesion.  Scoring goals when needed or, at the very least, great zone time and opportunities galore that eventually lead to goals.

On the power play and during the kill.  This team has stepped up.

The Bolts are looking more and more like the playoff team they need to be if a deep run towards the Stanley Cup is something they aim to do.  Now that they’ve created the best situation possible to help them do that very thing:  drawing Montreal in the first round (3-1 series record against the Habs) and home ice advantage – the stage is set.

Now it’s time for playoff hockey to return to Tampa Bay.

All in.

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