RALEIGH, N.C. – The Tampa Bay Lightning scored one early goal. The second one came quickly, the third even faster.
Because the Carolina Hurricanes couldn’t keep up, they won’t join them in the post-season.
Vincent Lecavalier had a goal and an assist as part of the Lightning’s quick start, and they routed Carolina 6-2 on Saturday night to eliminate the Hurricanes from playoff contention.
“You never know what can happen down the road if you keep a team alive,” centre Steven Stamkos said. “I mean, you never know what happens if you (meet) them in the playoffs or something.”
The Lightning won’t have to worry about running into Carolina until next season, thanks to that early burst.
Dominic Moore, Lecavalier and Stamkos scored during a six-minute 32-second flurry in the first period. Tampa Bay led 4-0 midway through the second and held on to send the New York Rangers—and former coach John Tortorella—into the Eastern Conference playoffs as the No. 8 seed.
Martin St. Louis had two assists before he and Simon Gagne scored empty-netters in the final 2 1-2 minutes. Gagne also had an early assist and Mike Smith made 42 saves for the Lightning, who matched a club record with their 46th victory and closed the regular season with wins in seven of eight.
Tampa Bay, which already had the East’s No. 5 seed locked up, will play fourth-seeded Pittsburgh in a best-of-seven first round series.
“It was a great test for us because it was going to be a playoff game,” St. Louis said. “For (Carolina), it was a do-or-die situation. I thought it was good preparation for what’s coming.”
Cory Stillman and Chad LaRose scored and Cam Ward stopped 29 shots but allowed four goals for the Hurricanes, who lost a win-and-you’re-in season finale at home for the second time in four years.
The Rangers won earlier in the day to move to 93 points—two ahead of the Hurricanes, who held the tiebreaker over New York. That meant a victory of any kind against Tampa Bay would have given Carolina just its second playoff berth since winning the 2006 Stanley Cup.
“We knew they were going to come out hard, and we treated it as a playoff game,” Stamkos said. “It was a Game 7 for them, so for us it was a great tuneup for our playoffs.
“At the end of the day, we had a great start,” he added, “and that’s what won us the game.”
That seemed like a formality for a Hurricanes team playing in front of a juiced-up RBC Center crowd and peaking at the right time, entering having won nine of 12 while earning points in six straight. But after scoring at will 24 hours earlier during a 6-1 rout of Atlanta, they fell way behind and were forced to play catch-up.
“I think there’s a chance it was shock at 3-0,” Carolina coach Paul Maurice said. “Not the pressure. It felt right going out, and to come off a good night and felt good, and then, boom. It happened so fast that you’re shellshocked a little bit, and then the enormity of how much you put into it and where it’s at, I think that made it difficult for us.”
Stillman tried to rally the Hurricanes with a goal during a 5-on-3 power play midway through the second, and LaRose scored on a wrist shot to pull Carolina to 4-2 with 11:27 left in the third. But the Hurricanes came up empty on a power play in the final 4 1-2 minutes before Gagne and St. Louis scored into empty nets 40 seconds apart to seal it.
“Everyone in this room wanted to be in the playoffs,” Carolina captain Eric Staal said. “Not a nice feeling in the stomach. We obviously worked our butts off all year to have this opportunity at home, and we didn’t get the job done tonight.”
Smith, who beat the Hurricanes in their building for the second time in two weeks, got all the offensive support he’d need during the Lightning’s first-period scoring binge.
“It was just playing our game, structure and doing the things we talked about, and getting rewarded for it,” St. Louis said.
Moore sucked much of the air out of the arena 6:45 in, when he chipped the rebound of Steve Downie’s shot over Ward’s shoulder. Lecavalier made it 2-0 at 11:19 whenhe backhanded a breakaway between Ward’s pads.
Then Stamkos almost completely hushed the building two minutes later, when he made it a three-goal game by tapping home a pretty feed from Teddy Purcell. That forced Maurice to burn his timeout and stop the early onslaught with 6:43 left.
Clark pushed the Lightning’s lead to 4-0 when he scored from between the circles with about 9 minutes left in the second, roughly 2 1-2 minutes before Stillman finally got Carolina on the board.
“They didn’t feel the tension, but certainly it mounted as (the deficit) got to two, and simple things became difficult to do,” Maurice said. “I thought we settled at three for a bit. … That block between (trailing by) three and them scoring four was our chance to crawl back into it.”
NOTES: After the game, Maurice disclosed that Staal pulled his groin roughly three weeks ago and last week wasn’t sure if the captain would be in the lineup. Staal didn’t miss any games. … The Carolina chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association announced its award winners, naming Ward the team’s MVP and LW Jussi Jokinen as its “good guy” for his co-operation with the media. RW Erik Cole was the chapter’s nominee for the Masterson Trophy, which honours sportsmanship, perseverance and dedication to the sport. … St. Louis finished with 12 points (three goals, nine assists) in six games this season against Carolina. … Purcell added two assists for the Lightning.