For the first time in four years, the Tampa Bay Lightning will be playing in the greatest playoff tournament in sports—the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In the process, Tampa Bay shook off a late-season swoon to record their third straight victory and close the gap on their likely postseason opponent, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Bolts' 95 points is the second most in franchise history (the eventual Stanley Cup Champion squad of '03-'04 holds the record of 106).
The Lightning's recovery coincides with the return of some grit and muscle to their forward lines. Steve Downie and Ryan Malone are back and wreaking havoc on the offensive boards. The aggressive forecheck was the element Tampa Bay seemed to be missing during their March misery where they had slipped to 2-6-4 and surrendered the Southeast Division to the Washington Capitals.
The Caps retain their stranglehold on the Southeast, maintaining their six-point edge on the Bolts (Tampa Bay does have a game in hand).
For the Lightning, it's Malone's size and presence in front of the net that makes all the difference in the world.
"We're not that big a team, and he's a big guy," Head Coach Guy Boucher told the St. Petersburg Times, "But being big is one thing; he's also smart. He's one of those rare guys who is the total package: toughness, big and smart. He's been missing a long time, and it's been hurting us a lot."
If the Lightning and Penguins meet in the First Round, who wins?
Malone certainly made his presence felt against Pittsburgh, tying Downie with a game-leading five hits.
The physical game wasn't all the Lightning have had going for them in this resurgence. Martin St. Louis reached the 30-goal plateau for the fifth time in his career, while Dwayne Roloson was sensational between the pipes, making 36 saves against the Penguins.
The Lightning's likely first-round opponent is Pittsburgh.
The Penguins have struggled without superstars Evgeni Malkin (knee) and Sidney Crosby (concussion), going 19-13-5, but fairing far better than most expected.
When your team loses more than 300 aggregate games due to injury and you're still in the top half of the conference, that says something about depth.
Pittsburgh still hopes Crosby will return for the playoffs. Meanwhile, the clubs have split the season series.
For the Lightning, the first goal has been achieved—get back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for only the sixth time in franchise history.
You can't win it if you aren't in it.