No white flags just yet; Lightning continuing surge for home ice in playoffs
TAMPA, Fla. — Their narrative has flipped. Their surge wasn’t supposed to happen. When goaltender Ben Bishop, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Big Answer in the crease, slumped off the ice Tuesday, the sight was supposed to mean their momentum’s end, their hopes dashed. Home-ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs was supposed to be a fantasy.
Get us rewrite. Pronto.
Now, home-ice advantage should be the expectation. Forget "maybes." Forget other qualifiers like "Well, if they receive some help." Forget checking those early week flights to Montreal.
Nope. After the Lightning’s 3-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday at Tampa Bay Times Forum, it’s time to shoot for hosting Game 1 with that blue bolt at center ice when the puck drops on their first playoff game since 2011. It’s time to consider all that’s there for the taking.
Watch the New York Rangers beat the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday, and the goal becomes reality.
If that doesn’t happen, win in the District against the Washington Capitals on Sunday, and then the vision becomes real.
Anything else would be a letdown.
"We would love to have home ice," said Lightning defenseman Eric Brewer, who had two goals Friday. "It’s something you never want to use, but you’d love to have."
Look at the standings. The opportunity is there. The Lightning have 99 points to the Canadiens’ 98 in the Atlantic Division, with one game left for each team. Tampa Bay has won its past three games. Montreal has lost its past two.
This has been some rise after Bishop’s fall with the always vague "upper-body injury." Credit Anders Lindback, who had 25 saves in a victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday and 34 in beating the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday. Credit young Kristers Gudlevskis, who made his first NHL start at age 21 on Friday and thwarted the pesky Blue Jackets with 36 saves. Credit the offense, which came alive for 10 goals the past three games.
"I’m proud of the guys," Lightning center Steven Stamkos said. "We needed that if we want home ice. We at least had to win this game to give us a chance to see what happens tomorrow. It’s still in our hands."
True, but not everything is right. Injuries have been an issue all season, and the problem continues. Of course, there’s Bishop’s absence. Then center Valtteri Filppula didn’t play Friday, and he’s day-to-day with a lower-body issue. Defenseman Victor Hedman played 1:42 in the first period before he left with a lower-body injury. Winger Ondrej Palat left in the third period with an undisclosed problem. Coach Jon Cooper refused to take questions about injuries, so little is known what’s wrong.
But that’s the Lightning. That’s them, all season. They hobble and wobble but somehow overachieve. Why expect anything different now?
"That was as entertaining a hockey game as we’ve seen here in awhile," Cooper said. "It had everything. That was very playoff-esque."
The true playoffs are coming, of course. It will be something to see the Lightning in the postseason again. They deserve this spot. They have done more than many of the most optimistic fans could have hoped when they beat the Florida Panthers in their home opener Oct. 10. They have survived after so many twists and turns. They have thrilled.
Now they must be greedy.
The narrative after Bishop’s injury sounded something like this: The Lightning are done, they are toast, they don’t have enough to overcome the loss of one of the league’s top goaltenders. Cooper’s guys should prepare to begin the postseason in Montreal. Everyone wearing blue should brace for a quick exit.
The time is now. The opportunity is here.
The Lightning can shape their future again.