Last season, the New Jersey Devils had their string of 13 straight playoff appearances snapped. They seemed poised for a return to the postseason and can clinch a spot this evening in their matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
A 38-39-5 finish a season ago had the Devils at home watching the first round of the playoffs for the first time since the spring of 1996. They have won two Stanley Cup titles and nine Atlantic Division championships since that season and can return to the playoffs with a victory tonight and a loss by the Washington Capitals, who visit the Boston Bruins this evening.
New Jersey, currently the sixth seed in the East, can also claim a spot in the postseason with a point in tonight's outing and a regulation loss by the Capitals.
The Devils had lost five of seven prior to Tuesday's 2-1 shootout win over the visiting Blackhawks. That upped their point total on the season to 96, four behind the fifth-seeded Flyers, who have a game in hand and visit the Maple Leafs this evening. New Jersey also pushed its edge over seventh-place Ottawa to four points with five games to play for both teams, though the Senators are off until Saturday.
Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac had the shootout goals on Tuesday and Martin Brodeur made 37 saves through overtime for the Devils, while Petr Sykora had the regulation tally.
"It's a big two points, obviously," said Zajac. "We didn't play our best game but we found a way to win. That's what you have to do at this time of year."
New Jersey, which plays its second in a row at home, has won 15 of its past 18 versus Tampa Bay, though the Lightning did snap a three-game slide to the Devils with a 4-3 win at New Jersey on Feb. 26. It was only the Lightning's second win in their past nine trips to the Garden State.
The Lightning are on the verge of being eliminated from the postseason race just one season after making it to the conference finals. Tampa Bay trails eighth-place Buffalo by nine points with just six left to play.
Tampa had a three-game win streak snapped on Tuesday, falling 5-2 in Boston. Steven Stamkos continued his run at 60 goals this season with a pair of tallies, extending his Lightning single-season record with 55 goals on the season. That is nine more than Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin in the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy.
Martin St. Louis assisted on both goals and Dwayne Roloson made 33 saves in his fourth straight start.
"There's no quit on this team," Stamkos said. "We were playing a pretty good hockey team, in their rink, and sticking around for most of the game. Yeah, we're giving up more shots and scoring chances than we'd like, but, we're giving it our all and there's not much more you can ask."
The Lightning will wrap a three-game road trip tonight before returning home for two straight and they expect to have captain Vincent Lecavalier back for the first time since Feb. 18. He has been out with a fractured right hand, but sent out a half English, half French tweet on Wednesday that seemingly confirmed his return.
"Happy to get back in lineup tomorrow!! de retour au jeu demain, tres content!!," tweeted the Quebec-born center.
Lecavalier has tallied 21 goals and 25 assists in 58 games this season.