NEW YORK — The Lightning finally clinched a playoff spot Tuesday night.
But this certainly wasn't the way Tampa Bay drew it up, having to back its way in.
For the second consecutive night, the Lightning needed just one point to seal a postseason berth. But after blowing a two-goal lead in a 3-2 loss to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, Tampa Bay players found out they clinched postgame thanks to the Bruins' shootout loss at home against Carolina.
Tampa Bay, despite a 41-28 shot advantage, lost its fourth in six games with two to go and needs two points to wrap up home ice for a first-round series beginning a week from today.
"Obviously a nice surprise after a game like that," Lightning defenseman Jason Garrison said of clinching. "We wanted to put it in control more."
The Lightning (45-30-5) had control of this one, even after finding out right before the game that defenseman Victor Hedman (upper body) and Ryan Callahan (lower body) wouldn't play, joining Steven Stamkos (vascular surgery) and Anton Stralman (fractured left leg) on the injured list. A depleted Tampa Bay came out firing, racking up 17 of the first 19 shots, taking a 2-0 first-period lead.
But the Rangers rallied for three consecutive goals, Chris Kreider scoring the winner early in the third, as Tampa Bay had just eight shots over a 28-minute span midway through the game.
"We sat back but they came out even harder," Lightning center Tyler Johnson said. "It's playing against a good team, we can't sit back, got to keep going. And the third period was much better for us, but it was too little too late at that point. We've got to play a full 60 (minutes) the way we know we can."
The Lightning ended up outshooting New York 40-28, with former Vezina Trophy winning goaltender Henrik Lundqvist a difference-maker. Tampa Bay, 1-for-6 on the power play, squandered a five-minute man advantage late in the first. Then Lundqvist made two spectacular, sprawling saves on Johnson and Ondrej Palat, preventing this from being a three-goal game.
"I think we took it to them in every statistic possible except for the scoreboard," coach Jon Cooper said. "It's unfortunate. Guys gamed it out."
Tampa Bay just couldn't finish it out. Derek Stepan scored the first two Rangers goals, beating backup goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy high glove-side on both. Then, on a partial breakaway, Chris Kreider tallied the winner five minutes into the third.
Cooper wasn't sure if Hedman or Callahan would return by the end of the regular season, which includes games Thursday against the Devils and Saturday at Montreal. Then comes a first-round series, likely a rematch with the Red Wings.
"I know it's a sour note because we lost the game," Cooper said. "But ultimately we can sit back and say our season is not ending Saturday. And we're really excited about that."
Contact Joe Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Sustr 4 (Namestnikov, Marchessault), 2:42. 2, Tampa Bay, B.Boyle 13 (Palat, Johnson), 6:07 (pp). Penalties—McIlrath, NYR (hooking), 4:38; Lundqvist, NYR, served by Glass (delay of game), 9:25; Condra, TB (hooking), 12:47; Glass, NYR, served by Miller, major-game misconduct (interference -), 15:57.
Second Period—3, N.Y. Rangers, Stepan 21 (Zuccarello, Yandle), 16:55 (pp). Penalties—Brassard, NYR (delay of game), 5:42; Paquette, TB (roughing), 9:46; Yandle, NYR, served by Kreider, double minor (roughing), 9:46; Palat, TB (delay of game), 12:43; Kucherov, TB (interference), 16:47; Kreider, NYR (hooking), 19:46.
Third Period—4, N.Y. Rangers, Stepan 22 (Zuccarello, Klein), 2:33. 5, N.Y. Rangers, Kreider 21 (M.Staal, Stepan), 4:46. Penalties—Nesterov, TB (tripping), :30; J.Brown, TB (tripping), 8:23; B.Boyle, TB, major-game misconduct (boarding), 18:52. Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 21-8-12—41. N.Y. Rangers 6-13-9—28. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 1 of 6; N.Y. Rangers 1 of 6. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 11-9-0 (28 shots-25 saves). N.Y. Rangers, Lundqvist 35-20-7 (41-39). A—18,006 (18,006). T—2:30. Referees—Justin St. Pierre, Kelly Sutherland. Linesmen—Derek Amell, Scott Driscoll.