The Devils had a chance to clinch their 14th trip to the playoffs in 15 seasons but Washington delayed the celebration by winning a shootout over Boston minutes after New Jersey's game ended. Many of the Devils watched the shootout before talking to the media.
"It would have been nice to clinch, but I think we are in a good spot," Devils first-year coach Peter DeBoer said.
The Devils have four regular-season games to earn a clinching point. They can back in if Washington losses a point in its last four games.
"We have to keep winning," Devils forward Zach Parise said. "You don't want to rely on any other team have to lose to make it in, so we'll just worry about ourselves and make sure we keep going in the right direction."
New Jersey missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 1996, a run of 13 straight years. There was no NHL season in 2004.
"We just have to worry about ourselves, that's it," said Devils veteran Patrik Elias, who didn't watch the shootout.
The four-goal second period gave New Jersey a 4-3 lead entering the third period. Ponikarovsky stretched the margin to two goals deflecting a shot by defenseman Bryce Salvador at 2:25 and Clarkson extended his career-high goals total to 29, scoring off Ponikarovsky's rebound.
"Today we killed ourselves in the second period with turnovers," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "We weren't good in the third. They kept on with their momentum. We deserved it. That's what we deserved. We killed ourselves in the second period. At 3-2, if we just keep playing, we have a chance. But we just opened up the flood gates with our fancy stuff and it cost us."
There were six goals in a wild second period in which the Devils fought back to tie it after each of Malone's goals before eventually taking the lead on a power-play tally by Zidlicky with 5:23 left in the period.
"It's nice when you have a game like that," Clarkson said. "The puck is going in. Obviously, we have to clean up spots defensively, but you'll take a game like that sometimes."
Kovalchuk had tied it at 3-3 with his 33rd goal just 1:11 earlier, taking a pass from Adam Henrique and scoring his 33rd goal.
Malone was the story for the Lightning with the aid of a couple of lucky bounces. He got his 16th of the season late in the first period, putting a puck that deflected off Steven Stamkos' rear end into an open net.
Zubrus tied it after a Lightning giveaway set up a 2-on-1 short-handed chance that resulted in his 17th goal.
"That goal got us going obviously," Elias said.
Malone restored the Lightning lead less than 2 minutes later with a shot that deflected past Brodeur off Zidlicky's skate. A giveaway by Tampa Bay defenseman Eric Brewer allowed Josefson to tie it at 2-2 at 6:54.
Malone completed his hat trick at 10:13, putting the rebound of a point shot by Victor Hedman into the net.
Trevor Smith scored for the Lightning in the closing seconds.
The game was the first for Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier since breaking his hand Feb. 18. ...The Devils scratched rookie D Adam Larsson for the second straight game. ...Devils D Anton Volchenkov returned to the lineup after missing two games with a lower body injury. ...Lightning D Bruno Gervais sent Kovalchuk flying with a first-period hip check. ...Zubrus' short-handed goal was the Devils' 15th this season, tops in the NHL. ..The Devils won the season series 3-1. ... Caron skated on the ice to replace Roloson after the Zidlicky goal in the second period but Roloson skated to the bench and then was back in goal when play started. DeBoer said the officials explained it to him as a miscommunication on the Tampa Bay bench.
Copyright by STATS LLC and The Associated Press
Arena: Prudential Center Location: Newark, New Jersey
Referees: Marc Joannette, Tom Kowal Linesmen: Greg Devorski, Matt MacPherson
Attendance: 15,380 (87.3% full)
Team Stat Comparison
Power Play Goals
Power Play Opportunities
Shots on Goal
Ryan Malone (16)
Assists: Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman
Dainius Zubrus (17)
(Shorthanded) Assist: Patrik Elias
Ryan Malone (17)
Assist: Eric Brewer
Jacob Josefson (2)
Assists: Ryan Carter, David Clarkson
Ryan Malone (18)
Assist: Victor Hedman
Ilya Kovalchuk (33)
Assists: Adam Henrique, Zach Parise
Marek Zidlicky (2)
(Power Play) Assists: Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias
Alexei Ponikarovsky (13)
Assist: Bryce Salvador
David Clarkson (29)
Assists: Alexei Ponikarovsky, Adam Henrique
Trevor Smith (2)
Assists: Tim Wallace, Keith Aulie