History was made April 3 night when the Washington Capitals lost to the Ottawa Senators, giving the Tampa Bay Lightning their first division title since their inception 11 years ago.
Tampa Bay clinched the No. 3 seed in the Stanley Cup playoffs, getting home-ice advantage in the first round against Washington, the No. 6 seed.
Although Washington and Tampa Bay battled for first place in the division for weeks, the Capitals’ 5-1 loss against Ottawa on April 3 made it mathematically impossible for Washington to catch Tampa Bay in the standings.
With a postseason appearance forthcoming, Friday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers did not matter to the Lightning because they already clinched the division. On the other hand, the game mattered to the Flyers, who were still battling New Jersey for first place in the Atlantic Division.
Before the game started, for the first time ever the announcer shouted, “Now welcome your Southeast Division champion Tampa Bay Lightning.” The Lightning took the ice in front of 19,553 people on their feet screaming, cheering and clapping for their division champions.
One of those fans was Melanie Wilmar, who has been a fan of the Lightning for six years and was happy to see the team finally get to the playoffs.
“I just bought tickets for this game,” Wilmar said. “I wanted to come out and show my support for the Lightning. It’s an exciting moment in Tampa Bay history. First, the Bucs win the Super Bowl, and now the Lightning are division champions. It can’t get better than this.”
Steve McIntyre also attended the game to show his support for the Lightning.
“I’ve been a fan of this team since they came here,” he said. “I’m really excited that the team has finally gotten to the playoffs. It’s well deserved for the team and especially for the fans. Hopefully, they’ll make it all the way.”
Although the thrill of the playoffs loomed around the St. Pete Times Forum, the last regular-season home game did not go as expected. Philadelphia scored two goals in the first period, and added another two in the second period, making the score 4-0. The only goal for the Lightning came 19 seconds into the third period by left wing Ruslan Fedotenko as Tampa Bay lost 4-1.
However, the loss didn’t matter because the Lightning were already Southeast Division champions on the way to their first playoff appearance since 1996.
But this was a meaningless game. The game against Philadelphia and Sunday’s 6-2 loss against Atlanta didn’t affect the Lightning’s seeding in the playoffs.
This did not look like a team overlooking its last two games. This did not look like a team caught up in the excitement of being division champions and just happy to be in the playoffs. This looked like a team disappointed with the loss and taking every play and every game seriously in preparation for the playoffs.
“They played very physical, and what I liked about it is that it showed our young players what it’s going to be like when it comes to Thursday against Washington,” Lightning center Tim Taylor said. “So when its time for us to battle Washington, we can get to that level, and we know the level we have to get to — not be surprised by the first three or four shifts that Washington has because knowing what it’s going to be like. Now that we’ve seen it tonight, we can be a little more focused.”
Even Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk said he could see his team was lacking that focus in its final two games.
“As athletes, you have to be prepared to play every night, and tonight was one of the hard nights to be prepared for. That game meant a lot to us,” Andreychuk said. “We talked about it after the game to make sure that we’re ready to go, making sure that we have a little bit better effort against Atlanta and get ready for the playoffs because it’s hard to turn it on. But we have played well, and tonight was a game that was a little bit of a reality check.”