The Tampa Bay Lightning are in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the eighth time in the past nine seasons.
There’s still plenty to polish before then, however.
The Lightning will continue fine-tuning their game when they host the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday night.
Tampa Bay (45-21-8, 98 points) had been in a 1-3-2 slump before rallying for a dramatic win on Thursday. Nikita Kucherov tied the score with 13 seconds left against the visiting Anaheim Ducks, and Anthony Cirelli won it 4-3 at 1:58 of overtime.
The Lightning had clinched a playoff berth a few minutes earlier when the New York Islanders lost 6-3 to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“When you look at the standings, I think we figured we were going to, probably, get in at some point,” Tampa Bay forward Alex Killorn said. “But to get in now, there’s some real important points on the line.”
The Lightning are third in the Atlantic Division, four points behind the second-place Toronto Maple Leafs and three points ahead of the fourth-place Boston Bruins, but they aren’t ready to settle into their playoff spot.
“You know, we’ve won a couple of (Stanley) Cups and there’s ample opportunity for guys to take a breath and say, ‘OK,’ but they haven’t,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “They keep pushing forward and doing it in different ways.”
The Jets are against a steep wall when it comes to their playoff hopes.
Winnipeg opened a four-game trip with a 6-1 loss against the Florida Panthers on Friday night, leaving them eight points out of a playoff spot with seven games left.
The Jets (35-29-11, 81 points) continue to be without forward Mark Scheifele, who is second on the team with 70 points (29 goals, 41 assists). He is not on the trip after suffering an upper-body injury against the Ottawa Senators on Sunday.
Scheifele had a goal and three assists in a 7-4 win against the visiting Lightning on March 8.
Winnipeg welcomed back Blake Wheeler against the Panthers after he missed three games with an upper-body injury. Wheeler, who has at least 50 points for the ninth time in his career, was a minus-2 with two giveaways in 16:24 of ice time vs. Florida.
“Wheels is a smart player,” teammate Pierre-Luc Dubois said. “He’s a player that’s easy to play with, he finds space, he finds the open guy. He’s strong on pucks and helps in the corners. We have a lot of depth on this team. You can play with anybody and have a good line. To have Wheels back is going to be a boost for us.”
Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy gave up five goals in the last meeting against Winnipeg before the Jets scored two into an empty net in the final six minutes.
The Lightning likely will come back with Vasilevskiy against the Jets, even after he was removed Thursday after allowing three straight goals in the second period to erase a 2-0 lead.
It was the first time Vasilevskiy was pulled from a game for non-injury reasons in just over five years.
“It was really not on him — we left guys open in front and let them have deflections,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “Those are ones that are pretty much unstoppable for a goalie. It got away from us there for a bit, and they made us pay.”
–Field Level Media