Lightning near berth in NHL playoffs with win over Capitals

Tampa Bay, which has allowed just three goals over its past three games, can clinch a postseason spot outright with a win Saturday.
Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) celebrates with his teammates after his buzzer-beating goal near the end of the first period Thursday at Amalie Arena.
Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) celebrates with his teammates after his buzzer-beating goal near the end of the first period Thursday at Amalie Arena. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published March 31|Updated March 31

TAMPA — A week ago, the Lightning were an angry, embarrassed team. Frustrated with their play, they realized time was running out to right the ship. Coach Jon Cooper issued a warning that if things didn’t improve, they were heading toward an early offseason.

Fast forward to Thursday night and smiles were back on the Lightning bench. Tampa Bay has recaptured its mojo.

With a 5-1 win over the Capitals at Amalie Arena, they Lightning have allowed just three goals over their past three games.

“That’s a big point,” said center Anthony Cirelli. “We want to be a hard team to play against, and you want to limit teams’ chances, limit goals, especially 5-on-5.

“That’s a big thing in the playoffs, limiting goals and limiting chances. The last three games have been great, but we’ve just got to keep on building and keep on getting better.”

With six games remaining in their regular season, the Lightning (44-26-6) can punch their ticket to the postseason outright with a win over the Islanders on Saturday.

“We’re too good of a hockey team to just let it just keep floating like this,” said forward Pat Maroon, who crashed the net to score two third-period goals for his first multigoal game since Nov. 9, 2019. “We’ve had enough, and it’s when you’ve had enough you’ve got to start to rely on yourself and look yourself in the mirror. And I think everyone’s done that, and we’ve got to keep doing it.

“We’ve got to keep chipping away. It’s just three games. We’ve got to keep doing it for a while now.”

The Lightning’s surge started Saturday in Boston, where they were encouraged by a 2-1 loss to the NHL-leading Bruins. A commanding 4-0 win at Carolina followed Tuesday, and the Lightning continued to build momentum against a beleaguered Capitals team that had traveled from Washington for the second of back-to-back games.

“For the most part, we carried it into (Thursday),” Cooper said. “Now, we should have. That’s a brutal back-to-back (for Washington). We’ve been on that before, playing in Washington and then having to come here. So, I’m sure they didn’t get in until 2:30, 3 o’clock in the morning. But every team gets those. We get to take advantage of it, and I thought we did (Thursday).”

Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 30 of 31 shots and has turned away 93 of 96 over the past three games.

The Lightning and Capitals combined for 73 hits, with Tampa Bay recording 37, led by eight from trade-deadline acquisition Tanner Jeannot.

“I think its urgency, just being physical, and that’s not just hits,” Maroon said. “It’s winning puck battles in the (defensive) zone. I think we weren’t closing fast enough. We weren’t heavy enough. And that’s our team. We’re finding our identity, and I think it’s being strong, physical, strong on pucks.

“We have all the high-end skill ready to take over eventually, but you’ve got to defend first, play hard in your own zone, and then the offense will take over. I think we’ve done a really good job of that.”

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After forward Alex Killorn opened the scoring on a power play, redirecting defenseman Mikhail Sergachev’s shot 9:20 into the game, Steven Stamkos made it 2-0 with 2.8 seconds remaining in the period. After forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare’s offensive-zone faceoff win, Stamkos rifled a wrister from above the right circle high off the far post and in for his 32nd goal of the season.

Stamkos, who assisted on Killorn’s goal, had his third multipoint game in his past four.

Washington forward Craig Smith jumped on a loose puck in front of the net and flipped it off Vasilevskiy’s skate and in with 3:50 left in the second to cut Tampa Bay’s lead to one.

Cirelli intercepted a pass at his blue line, outraced Capitals defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk to the puck and whipped a shot on net from the right dot. Maroon crashed the net, then tucked the rebound past goaltender Darcy Kuemper 4:30 into the third.

Just under 12 minutes later, Maroon jumped on another Cirelli rebound, gaining an inside edge on Capitals forward Tom Wilson and poking the puck into the net.

Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak’s empty-net goal with 1:54 left capped the win.

“I think when we’re playing good defensively, that’s what creates offense for us,” Cirelli said. “We have so many skill guys on this team that can make a play, so I think we just kind of wait for our chances and, first and foremost, be good on that (defensive) side of the puck, and the offense will come for us.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at Follow @EddieintheYard.

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