Putting a foot in playoffs

LIGHTNING 4, PANTHERS 1: Tampa Bay adds more distance between itself and its pursuers with its second 40-win season.

Published April 4, 2006

TAMPA - Doubters accost the Lightning at every NHL stop. Reject the diehards and good luck finding someone who bet the farm that Tampa Bay will repeat as Stanley Cup champion. Only seven games remain in the season and it still doesn't have a playoff spot tucked away.

The Lightning's season has been disjointed, somewhat disappointing and, at times, baffling.

Now here's the stunner: the Lightning's 4-1 gotta-have-it victory Monday against the Florida Panthers at the St. Pete Times Forum gave Tampa Bay only its second 40-win season in the 13-year existence of the franchise.

"That's a pretty good thing, to win 40 games," Lightning coach John Tortorella said. "Sometimes we (are made to) feel awful about ourselves, but 40 wins is a pretty good accomplishment."

Victory No.40 also proved to be a pivotal one for a slew of reasons. At the top of that list is what it did to the playoff standings.

The victory pushed the Lightning back into seventh place in the eight-team Eastern Conference race. With Atlanta losing, the Lightning (40-30-5) extended its lead to seven points over the Thrashers.

And by beating Florida, the Lightning might have finally thrown some dirt on the Panthers, who are tied with Toronto for 10th, eight points back.

While it won't mathematically clinch this week, a victory against Atlanta on Thursday at the Times Forum would put the Lightning on the cusp of its third consecutive playoff appearance.

"The last 10 games or so, we've really felt that urgency to win," said center Vinny Lecavalier, who scored twice in one of his best games of the season. "Especially now. We're playing teams that are trailing us and they are close. So every game, we have to come out hard."

The Lightning did just that Monday. It got an emotional lift before the game started as forward Fredrik Modin and defenseman Dan Boyle returned to the lineup after missing the past three games with injuries.

Turned out, Modin offered more than just an emotional lift. He scored the first goal of the game, giving the Lightning a rare lead against the Panthers. It was just the second time in seven meetings that the Lightning scored the first goal against Florida, which had won five of the previous six meetings.

Before the first period ended, the Lightning grabbed a two-goal lead when Lecavalier danced around Florida defenseman Steve Montador and then put Florida goaltender Roberto Luongo on his side with another shifty move.

Lecavalier tucked the puck into an empty net for his 33rd goal, tying a career best set in 2002-03. He set a career mark when he iced the game on the power play at 15:37 of the third.

Lecavalier could have had a hat trick, but passed up a shot on an empty net to set up Ruslan Fedotenko's 24th goal.

Meantime, goalie Sean Burke made his first start since breaking his finger on March 16 and was sharp, making 29 saves and allowing only a Nathan Horton goal late in the second.

"Having not played a full game in a while, I think I felt better as I went along," Burke said. "I was more tired at the beginning than the end. I couldn't really get into a groove until the second period when I was able to get some shots.

"But we had composure on the bench, composure on the ice. If you're going to win these games, you can't panic. We didn't at any point."

While it was the 40th victory, the Lightning also considered it the first victory after a loss.

In other words, the Lightning put the breaks on a one-game losing streak just as it did last week when it beat Atlanta after losing to Carolina.

"You don't have enough games (left) to go into a spin," Tortorella said. "At this time of year, a two-game spin is a bad spin. ... This is a sprint now. That's the way we're approaching. By no means are we set here."

But the Lightning sure is breathing a tad easier after Monday.