Lightning eye East’s top seed, must pass through Hurricanes
RALEIGH, N.C. — The Tampa Bay Lightning have entered a playoff mode before the postseason and there’s still something to play for.
That will be the case in the regular-season finale Saturday night against the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena.
This chase for the top seed in the Eastern Conference has put the Lightning in a playoff state of mind.
“I think it’s good for us to kind of stay in that mentality,” Tampa Bay left winger Alex Killorn said.
The Hurricanes have been on the outside of the playoff picture, but they would like to take a victory into the offseason.
“We got to do it right,” Carolina forward Sebastian Aho said. “It’s just the last game. We want to play it like we want (to). Just do right, the way we want to do it.?”
The Lightning (54-23-4) are still striving for the top spot in the conference, something that can be achieved by winning the Atlantic Division. Tampa Bay leads the Boston Bruins by two points. The Bruins have two games remaining, going to Ottawa on Saturday night and finishing Sunday night at home against the Florida Panthers.
Tampa Bay has won three consecutive games after the 7-5 home victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night.
After defeating Boston 4-0 on Tuesday, Tampa Bay had the benefit of its final two games against non-playoff teams — Buffalo and Carolina.
Tampa Bay center Tyler Johnson said winning the division is the short-term objective.
“That’s our main goal and really the only thing we’re focusing on is how can we do that, and the first step is just playing the right way and doing what we need to do,” Johnson said.
The Hurricanes (35-35-11) carry a three-game losing streak into the game, with each of those outcomes a one-goal defeat.
“We’ll play better on Saturday,” Hurricanes center Elias Lindholm said.
It could be an interesting offseason for the Hurricanes, who underwent a midseason ownership change that already has resulted in the reassignment of now-former general manager Ron Francis.
Carolina is locked out of the playoffs for the ninth straight season, marking the longest active playoff drought for any NHL team.
Aho said the Hurricanes have been a step behind in recent games against teams vying for playoff spots or postseason positioning.
“I think we weren’t quite there,” Aho said. “I mean, we didn’t have the same level.”
The Hurricanes did have a few uplifting moments this week, including the first goal of the season in 32 games for defenseman Klas Dahlbeck.
“It’s a reward for staying with it, being a good pro,” Carolina coach Bill Peters said. “Good to see him take advantage of the opportunity.”
Aho scored for the third time six games in Thursday night’s loss at Philadelphia. That puts him with a team-leading 29 goals this season.
The Hurricanes are expected to go with veteran goalie Cam Ward in what could be his final game with the franchise. He has a 22-14-4 record this season.
Tampa Bay won by 5-1 and 5-4 scores against Carolina in previous matchups this season.