TAMPA — Coach Jon Cooper said he at first did not know what to make of the well-wishers in the hallway outside the Lightning locker room offering congratulations.
Tampa Bay had just beaten the Canadiens 3-1 Tuesday night in front of an announced crowd of 18,808 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, so he expected people to be happy. But all the congratulations? "That usually doesn't happen after a win," he said.
But this win was special because with the Capitals regulation loss and Devils shootout loss, the Lightning (42-25-9) clinched a playoff spot.
"I had no idea," Cooper said. "I'm excited for what's happening. It's a really cool feeling."
Not only did Tampa Bay beat Montreal — its likely first-round opponent which, despite the loss, also clinched a playoff spot — one of Cooper's prized rookies, Tyler Johnson, scored the winner with a high backhand to finish a shorthanded breakaway that broke a 1-1 tie with 7:19 left in the third period.
It was Johnson's 23rd goal, tying captain Steven Stamkos' franchise rookie record.
Ryan Callahan's second-period, power-play goal tied the score at 1. Alex Killorn had an empty-netter and Ben Bishop made 25 saves for his 37th win.
"It's awesome," Bishop said of clinching Tampa Bay's first playoff spot since 2011. "It's a goal we set at the start of the season. It's something special."
"You want to win that Stanley Cup and now we have a chance. We're in the playoffs," Johnson said. "Once you're in anything can happen. We're trying to get some momentum, trying to build on it, trying to be ready for it and see where it takes us."
The team's attention now turns to home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Tampa Bay likely will face Montreal as the second- and third-place teams in the Atlantic Division. Both have 93 points, though because it has played one fewer game the Lightning officially is ahead. If it can hold that spot, it will open the playoffs at the Times Forum.
Johnson's goal, his fifth shorthanded which tied the league lead, was started in the defensive zone by defenseman Victor Hedman, who forced David Desharnais to give up the puck.
Johnson gained the puck by lifting the stick of Thomas Vanek. He outraced Vanek and P.K. Subban. That left goalie Carey Price, who was outstanding with 30 saves.
"Price didn't think I could get it to my backhand, I don't think, so he tried to over-challenge there," Johnson said. "Luckily I was able to get there and try to get it up and I was able to find a way. It was huge."
"We're proud in here," Stamkos said. "It is an accomplishment but there still is a lot of hard work to be done."
"It's just a wave of emotions right now," Cooper said.
And a lot of congratulations.
First—1, Montreal, Gallagher 19 (Galchenyuk, Weaver), 10:18. Penalties—Tampa Bay bench, served by Malone (too many men), 11:19; Eller, Mon (holding), 13:43.
Second—2, Tampa Bay, Callahan 17 (Palat, Hedman), 9:19 (pp). Penalties—Bouillon, Mon (tripping), 8:43; Gudas, TB (holding), 9:51; Vanek, Mon (tripping), 11:09; Filppula, TB (tripping), 16:21.
Third—3, Tampa Bay, Johnson 23 (Hedman), 12:41 (sh). 4, Tampa Bay, Killorn 17 (Palat, Brown), 19:15 (en-pp). Penalties—Eller, Mon (tripping), 4:32; Markov, Mon (hooking), 6:56; Thompson, TB (boarding), 12:14; Emelin, Mon (tripping), 13:00; Emelin, Mon (slashing), 16:05; Weaver, Mon (roughing), 17:47; Murray, Mon match penalty (match), 17:47; Johnson, TB (roughing), 17:47. Shots—Montreal 10-10-6—26. Tampa Bay 10-11-12—33. Power plays—Montreal 0 of 4; Tampa Bay 2 of 9. Goalies—Montreal, Price 32-19-5 (32 shots-30 saves). Tampa Bay, Bishop 37-12-7 (26-25). A—18,808 (19,204). T—2:38. Referees—Chris Lee, Brian Pochmara. Linesmen—Brad Lazarowich, Brian Murphy.