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Cirelli’s OT goal helps put an X next to the Bolts’ name in the standings

Joe Tomasone | The Scrum Sports

In sports, it’s always a great thing to wake up, look at the standings, and see an X next to your team’s name. That X symbolizing a clinched playoff spot always has a special meaning. In the case of the Tampa Bay Lightning, clinching that X means they’d officially be able to defend the Stanley Cup they’ve hoisted each of the last two years.

Despite having scuffled along recently with a 1-3-2 record in their previous six games, including a 1-0 loss in Dallas on Tuesday, the Lightning found themselves with a great chance to put that X in the standings. Hosting a struggling Anaheim Ducks team who won only 2 of their previous 17 games entering Thursday’s visit to Amalie Arena, the Lightning needed just two points to earn a playoff berth. In spite of their recent struggles, the Ducks refused to go down without a fight, and the Lightning needed some late-game heroics in order to get those two points.

Trailing 3-2, Nikita Kucherov’s goal with 12.3 seconds remaining in the third period tied the game and kept the Bolts alive. Anthony Cirelli then put the finishing touches with an overtime tally to give the Lightning (45-21-8, 98 points) a 4-3 win over the Ducks (29-33-14, 72 points). The Bolts’ actually received help in clinching a playoff spot earlier in the evening when Islanders lost 6-3 at the Penguins, but the victory at Amalie Arena provided a much-needed exclamation point.

Tampa Bay prevailed despite pulling Andrei Vasilevskiy in the second period in favor of Brian Elliott as a way to send a message to the rest of the team after they allowed the Ducks to rally from a 2-0 deficit. Vasilevskiy stopped 10 of 13 shots while Elliott stopped all 13 shots he faced. Anthony Stolarz took the loss in net for Anaheim despite stopping 27 of 31 shots.

The victory marks the fifth straight season the Lightning will participate in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the longest such streak in franchise history.

Taking control in the opening period

The Lightning didn’t need long to gain the upper hand, as Ross Colton found the back of the net just 2:37 into the contest. Following some solid forechecking by the line of Ondrej Palat, Steven Stamkos, and Colton, Stamkos worked the puck in front to Colton. Colton shifted to his backhand, where his shot went off of Ducks defenseman Josh Mahura and in for his 17th of the year.

About three minutes later, they also nearly cashed in on a power play, but Stolarz came up with a great save on Colton. He also caught a break when Stamkos ripped a one-timer off the side of the net.

Tampa Bay largely controlled play at 5-on-5, with 18 shot attempts at even strength to 11 for Anaheim, highlighted by Nick Paul nearly burying an excellent setup by Kucherov. Eventually, the Bolts went up 2-0 thanks to Alex Killorn’s 22nd of the year with 3:18 left in the period. Cirelli won a puck battle in the corner and found Killorn alone in the slot, where he sniped one past Stolarz for the goal.

The Ducks regain control and get on the board

Anaheim regrouped during the intermission and came out strong, tilting the ice back in their favor. Isac Lundestrom nearly put the Ducks on the board, but fired just wide while cutting to the net. At the other end, Cal Foote almost extended the Bolts’ lead, but couldn’t find the back of the net despite a great look. The Ducks finally broke through when former Lightning blueliner Kevin Shattenkirk’s wrister from the point got tipped by Adam Henrique past Vasilevskiy to cut the Bolts’ lead to 2-1.

Henrique and Troy Terry score a pair of quick goals, leaving the Bolts stunned

Nearly halfway through the period, the Lightning went on the power play for the second time and nearly regained a two-goal lead. Stamkos generated three quality chances, but never hit the back of the net. Soon after the man-advantage ended, Anaheim responded with a pair of goals in rapid succession. At 10:19, Henrique’s shot off a rush appeared to have hit Erik Cernak’s stick, squeaked through Vasileskiy, and trickled over the line.

Merely 22 seconds later, Terry deflected a shot from another former Tampa Bay defenseman, Andrej Sustr, past Vasilevskiy for his 34th of the season and a 3-2 Ducks lead. By this point, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper saw enough, and pulled Vasilevskiy in favor of Brian Elliott in a clear effort to wake up his team, who faltered after a strong opening 20 minutes. It was the first time Cooper pulled Vasilevskiy early in a game in over four years.

Late in the period, Killorn appeared to have scored his second of the night, but the Ducks challenged it for being offside. Replays confirmed the play was clearly offside, and after one of the fastest offside reviews you’ll ever see, the goal was taken off the board and the Lightning entered the intermission down 3-2. Overall, Anaheim still trailed 19-16 in shots on goal by this point, but held a 10-8 edge in shots in the second period. At 5-on-5, they attempted 19 shots compared to just nine for the Bolts.

Some tense moments in the the third period, followed by late-game heroics

Pulling Vasilevskiy seemed to provide a bit of a wakeup call for Tampa Bay, but the Ducks still found a way to create some solid scoring chances early in the third period. However, Elliott came up with a handful of really good saves to keep the Lightning in it. Victor Hedman drew a hooking penalty on Terry at the 7:41 mark, leading to another Lightning power play. Unfortunately for them, they failed to take advantage as Stolarz made a pair of excellent saves on Brayden Point from the slot.

After the man-advantage ended, both teams continued to engage in a bit of back-and-forth hockey for a few minutes, with the Lightning gaining a few looks at the net, but unable to hit the net with their shots. Meanwhile, Jamie Drysdale rang a shot off the post that would’ve given Anaheim a two-goal advantage. With just under five minutes left, Elliott made his best save of the night when he stonewalled Terry on a breakaway chance following a long lob pass.

With Elliott on the bench for an extra skater, Tampa Bay finally tied it up 3-3 thanks to a mid-range wrister from Kucherov in the dying seconds of regulation. Following a whiff on a one-timer attempt, Kucherov eventually got the puck back, cut against the grain, and from just outside the high slot and with a lot of traffic in front, fired a shot past Stolarz for his 16th of the year.

Killorn denied again, but Cirelli helps deliver that standings X in overtime

A frenetic opening minute of overtime saw Killorn score what he thought was his second goal of the night, this one off a beautiful deke on a breakaway. However, much like earlier, the Ducks challenged it for being offside. Unlike Killorn’s earlier goal that got wiped out for an offside review, this one was much closer. After a lengthy review, the goal was disallowed and the game continued on.

Exactly one minute after Killorn’s goal was wiped out, Cirelli collected a feed from Killorn at the side of the net, firing it home and giving the Bolts a playoff-clinching win. It’s never bad to see that X next to your name in the standings. Along with Boston’s loss and Toronto’s victory, the Lightning sit in third place in the Atlantic Division, four points behind the Maple Leafs and three ahead of the Bruins. Their next game is on Saturday against the Winnipeg Jets at Amalie Arena. Puck drops at 7 pm EST.

Three Stars of the Game

1st Star: Anthony Cirelli – Scored the overtime winner and picked up an assist.

2nd Star: Adam Henrique – Scored two goals.

3rd Star: Alex Killorn – Scored once and notched an assist while having two goals disallowed thanks to offside reviews.

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