Bolts can clinch a playoff berth Tuesday in Dallas

The Tampa Bay Lightning will look to continue the positive momentum generated over the last two games when they take on the Dallas Stars tonight at 9:30 p.m. at American Airlines Center. The Bolts enter tonight’s contest coming off Sunday’s emphatic 5-0 win over the Buffalo Sabres, the team’s largest margin of victory since a 7-1 win over the San Jose Sharks on January 22.

Tampa Bay can punch their ticket to the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs tonight in a multitude of ways. The Lightning can control their own destiny and clinch a playoff berth with a win over Dallas in any fashion. The Bolts can also clinch if they earn one point against Dallas and the Penguins defeat the Islanders in any fashion. Finally, Tampa Bay will clinch if the Penguins defeat the Islanders in regulation.

The Lightning will face a hungry team in the Stars tonight, with Dallas currently holding the second wild card spot in the Western Conference. Through 72 games this season, the Stars have earned 86 points, but the Vegas Golden Knights currently sit right behind them with 84 points in 73 games. The Winnipeg Jets are the next closest team to the final wild card spot with 81 points in 74 contests.

Video: Jon Cooper | Pregame TBL at DAL

Following the Lightning’s morning skate in Dallas, Jon Cooper was asked how his team would handle the desperation from a Stars team that is fighting tooth and nail for a spot in the postseason.

“Did you ask them the same question about us,” Cooper replied. “[These are] two desperate teams in my opinion. You know, of late here, we’ve played a couple good games, but we’ve got teams trying to chase us down and we’re trying to catch teams, so I don’t think the desperation level should be any different between them and us.

“It’s a little different, our schedule here, because I think our next few here are against Western Conference teams. So, quote-unquote, they’re not ‘four-point games,’ but they mean something to us. Hopefully we can get some points tonight, punch our ticket, and see where we slide in from there. I wouldn’t sit here and say they’re any more desperate than we should be.”

Tampa Bay and Dallas have faced off just one time this season, with the Lightning defeating the Stars 3-1 at AMALIE Arena on January 15. Esa Lindell opened the scoring for Dallas in the first period at the 13:48 mark, but Brayden Point answered with a power-play goal in the final minute of the opening frame to tie the game at one.

The Lightning never looked back from there, outshooting Dallas 9-2 in the second period before Ross Colton broke the tie 10:37 into the third period with his fifth goal of the season. Colton took a beautiful pass from Nikita Kucherov and barreled in on a breakaway, rifling a shot bar-down on Anton Khudobin and igniting the crowd at AMALIE Arena. Alex Killorn added an empty-net goal with 41 seconds remaining to seal the 3-1 win for Tampa Bay. Andrei Vasilevskiy got the start in goal for the Bolts and stopped 19-of-20 shots to earn the win.

With a playoff berth seemingly inevitable for Tampa Bay, there is still plenty of motivation to get everything heading in the right direction before the start of the postseason. A team that has been to the playoffs in four-straight seasons, the Lightning know how important it is to maintain positive habits at the end of the regular season and carry those habits into the postseason.

“You want to have a good vibe going,” Cooper said. “You don’t want to sit here and say, ‘Oh we’ve got to play out the last 10 games here. We know what we have to do in the playoffs.’ You don’t want that mentality. You want the guys feeling good about themselves going in.

“You put yourselves in the position knowing that games are going to be 2-1. Can we win those games? The last couple games now, we’ve kind of shown ourselves that those are the games we have to learn to be comfortable with going into the playoffs and hopefully that continues.”

Video: Corey Perry | Pregame TBL at DAL

Lightning forward Corey Perry knows a thing or two about postseason hockey, having skated in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 13 of his 16 previous NHL seasons and winning a Stanley Cup during the 2006-07 season with the Anaheim Ducks. In 167 career playoff games, Perry has scored 45 goals and added 63 assists for 108 points. Perry, who spent the 2019-20 season as a member of the Stars, spoke to the media on Tuesday morning, echoing the sentiments of Cooper with the Bolts wrapping up their final stretch of regular season games.

“The season’s up and down,” Perry said. “It’s a roller coaster, but if you find your footing at the right time and play the right way, maybe you can do damage in the playoffs.

“That’s what we’re trying to look forward to. We’re trying to trend that way and it’s another tough test tonight. We’ll see where we’re at.”

The Lightning are 5-1-1 in Dallas since the start of the 2017-18 season and 19-6-3 against Western Conference opponents this season. The Bolts are one win away from their 45th victory of the season, a mark Tampa Bay has hit seven times in franchise history. Jon Cooper has been behind the bench as head coach for five of those seven seasons.

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