TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — There’s really no way to sugarcoat the disappointment of failing to make the playoffs, so the Tampa Bay Lightning aren’t trying.
While coach Jon Cooper and general manager Steve Yzerman appreciate a late surge that nearly salvaged the season, they’re hardly content with merely flirting with the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
Deep postseason runs the past two years created higher expectations than a 42-30-10 finish that left them out of the playoffs for the first time in four years.
Not acceptable, Cooper said, for a team that reached the Stanley Cup Final two years ago and came within one victory of returning to the NHL’s biggest stage last season.
“We could pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, getting ourselves to 94 points. But ultimately, 94 points wasn’t good enough,” Cooper said.
The Lightning went 20-6-4 after Feb. 3, closing on an 8-1-1 run to finish one point behind Toronto for the No. 8 seed in the East.
“I always say judge us after 82 (games). It was a hell of a run we made. Ninety-four points will get you in most years. It got you in in the other conference, it just didn’t get us in,” Cooper said.
“But you can’t accept that,” the coach added. “Ultimately, it’s about winning in this league.”
Injuries were a factor, including losing captain Steven Stamkos for the final 65 games with a knee injury.
But so was shoddy team defense, which Cooper and Yzerman said were a big part of the team’s early woes.
“For whatever reason we gave up too many quality scoring chances for the better part of 50 games. … That’s a result of our team play,” Yzerman said.
“Regardless of who’s in the lineup, who’s injured, who’s healthy, you’ve got to figure out a way to win hockey games,” the GM added.
“When you’re missing some of your firepower, the best way to do that is lock it down defensively. We had a hard time doing that for stretches of the season.”
Some things to know as the Lightning head into the offseason:
Stamkos went down with a torn meniscus in his right knee on Nov. 15, however the Lightning resist using his injury as an excuse for falling short of the playoffs.
He and the team were hopeful he might return for the stretch run and/or playoffs, upgrading his status at one point to day to day. Stamkos said, however, he never really came close to being ready for game action.
“I just think we got a little ahead of ourselves,” Stamkos said. “There was no setback, just it didn’t progress as fast as maybe I originally thought.”
The captain is confident he’ll be ready by next season. Another key component for Lightning, forward Ryan Callahan (right hip surgery) expects to heal over the summer after sitting out the final 41 games.
“This time off for our guys, I won’t say it’s a good thing,” Yzerman said, “but we’ve got to make the most of the time.”
LEADING THE WAY
With Stamkos, one of the NHL’s most prolific scorers, out, Nikita Kucherov led the Lightning with 40 goals and 85 points to finish fifth in the league in scoring. His 45 assists ranked second on the team behind Victor Hedman’s 56, which were tops in the NHL for a defenseman, third overall.
In addition to overcoming injuries to climb back into playoff contention over the final two months, the Lightning thrived despite dealing No. 1 goaltender Ben Bishop and veteran center Brian Boyle at the trade deadline — moves that cleared salary cap space moving forward.
Young goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy went 6-1-1 over his last eight starts, finishing 23-17-7.
One of the highlights of the season was the play of young players such as rookie centers Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde, who contributed to the team’s success down the stretch while playing much more than they or the Lightning anticipated when the season began.
“The kids that came up played unbelievable. … They were one of the main reasons, the last couple of games meant something,” Callahan said.
“A lot of guys got more opportunities than maybe they would have, and now we know what they can do at this level,” Stamkos added. “That is just going to benefit us going forward. It was a tough year in a lot of ways, but there are some positives.”
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