Thanks to Jared McCann's late third-period goal and the work of the rest of his Florida Panthers teammates, the Lightning now controls its own destiny in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference points standings.
The Panthers' 3-2 win Thursday against the visiting Bruins means the Lightning (53-23-4) and Bruins (49-19-12 remain tied atop the division with 110 points. The Lightning now holds the first tiebreaker, which is regulation and overtime wins (47 to 46).
Now, the Lightning's games tonight against the Sabres (25-43-12) in the regular-season finale and Saturday at Carolina in the season finale are important. The Bruins host the Senators on Saturday then host the Panthers on Sunday in a game that was postponed from earlier this season because of a snowstorm.
"We're in this position to be able to win this division, something we set out to do," coach Jon Cooper said after this morning's optional skate. "Buffalo is in our way of doing that. We've got to be happy with the way we played Boston and the result of that game, but ultimately, things have swung in that we control what happens here the rest of the way. It's our last home game of the regular season. The guys should be fired up for this."
White rally towels have been placed at each seat inside Amalie Arena, so tonight will have a whiteout effect when the towels are waved.
Cooper said C Steven Stamkos (lower body) will not play the final two regular-season games. He said the target is for Stamkos to return to practice next week but did not say that Stamkos would be ready for Game 1 of the playoffs, which will start Thursday or Friday.
And, Cooper said, given the time off between Saturday's regular-season finale and the start of the playoffs, he will not be resting players during the final two games. He wants his players to play to remain sharp.
The Sabres enter the game with the fewest points (62) in the NHL. Thanks to expansion, they will be the first team ever to finish 31st. They have lost 11 of their past 16 but are 9-4-1 in their last 14 road games.
The Sabres are 1-1-1 this season against the Lightning and own seven combined wins against the Lightning, Bruins and Maple Leafs — the top three teams in the Eastern Conference.
Contact Roger Mooney at [email protected] Follow @rogermooney50