TAMPA — The Lightning are playing like they’re ready for the postseason. And with two games remaining on the regular-season schedule, they’ll need this energy heading into next week’s first-round series.
Tampa Bay defeated the Blue Jackets 4-1 on Tuesday night at Amalie Arena. Toronto (53-21-7, 113 points), meanwhile, topped Detroit, securing the No. 2 seed in the Atlantic Division.
Boston (50-25-5, 105) beat Florida to remain in contention for third in the Atlantic, trailing the Lightning (50-22-8, 108) by three points with two games remaining for each.
The Lightning recorded their first 50-win season since 2018-19 (62 wins).
Here are three things we learned from Tuesday’s victory:
Stars maintain firepower
Nikita Kucherov played with persistence as he battled Columbus defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov for puck possession in the offensive zone.
The wing wrangled the puck free and immediately found Steven Stamkos, who fired from the right side and sent it flying past goaltender Elvis Merzlikins for a 3-1 lead with 12:31 remaining in the second period.
The goal meant a lot more than just an extra cushion for the Lightning. Stamkos got his 100th point of the season, a career-high mark for the veteran.
“A special moment … something I’ve never done before,” Stamkos said. “I’ve come pretty close, so to do it in Year 14 — I think I’m just more proud of the fact that I’ve probably proved a lot of people wrong. It’s the people that have always believed in me that make these moments pretty special because you can’t help but think of them when you do something cool like that.”
Kucherov said the team was talking about Stamkos nearing the milestone leading up to Tuesday’s game. Getting the mark in the final regular-season home game was definitely on players’ minds.
“We were talking about it like maybe it would be nice to get that at home at home and it’s going to happen today,” said Kucherov, who logged one goal and three assists. “You try to play the right way, don’t force plays and play the right system.”
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Stamkos’ four-point night (two goals) was the fifth straight game in which he recorded at least three points.
Victor Hedman also continued to improve on his career-best season. He reached 600 career points with an assist on Stamkos’ first-period goal.
Hedman, in his 13th season, has 20 goals and 62 assists for 82 points, all career highs. His 82 points also are the most by a Lightning defenseman in a season, and his 20 goals tie 2006-07′s Dan Boyle for the most by a defenseman.
“It’s been a great last week with a lot of milestones,” said Stamkos, who recently passed Marty St. Louis to become the franchise’s most prolific scorer. “It probably means two things, right? Like guys are having really good seasons, and we’re getting old.
" ‘Heddy’ and I have been the best of friends since 18, 19 years old (Hedman was drafted by the Lightning a year after Stamkos), so it’s just an honor to play with him and call him my friend. … He’s not even close to being done. It’s amazing.”
Over the past five games, the trio of Stamkos, Kucherov and Hedman has combined for 42 points (13 goals).
Erik Cernak ‘seems like he’s going to be OK’
Defenseman Erik Cernak plays a good chunk of minutes night in and night out.
So in the first period when he took a deflected puck to the face — which already had stitches from Sunday’s tussle with Florida’s Ryan Lomberg — off a shot from Columbus forward Jack Roslovic, there was concern.
Cernak immediately dropped his stick and quickly skated toward the bench, grabbed a towel and went down the tunnel with less than 9:01 remaining in the first.
Midway through the second, the team announced he would remain out, forcing the Lightning to finish with five defensemen.
“He’s had a tough week,” coach Jon Cooper said. “The poor kid. He seems like he’s going to be OK, but it was just unfortunate with what happened to him.”
The Lightning rested defenseman Jan Rutta out of “an abundance of caution,” assistant coach Rob Zettler said. Rutta played 7:48 against the Panthers on Sunday with only two shifts each in the second and third periods.
Rutta’s absence forced the Lightning, who have 21 players on their roster, to play 12 forwards and six defensemen for the first time since April 19′s loss to Detroit.
The format came back to bite the Lightning a bit when Cernak exited the game, but otherwise they didn’t struggle. Defensemen Ryan McDonagh, Hedman, Cal Foote and Mikhail Sergachev each played at least 20 minutes.
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