With Toronto's 5-3 victory over Pittsburgh Saturday night, the Tampa Bay Lightning were officially eliminated from playoff contention, rendering tonight's regular season finale against the Buffalo Sabres meaningless as far as the postseason is concerned.
Pittsburgh held a 3-2 lead over Toronto early in the third period, but the Maple Leafs scored a pair of goals over the final 10 minutes to pull ahead and added an empty netter to seal the come-from-behind win and wrap up the final spot in the East.
Most, if not all of the Bolts watched that game on Saturday, the fate of their season hanging in the balance.
The result was, predictably, disappointing.
"Going into that third period for them, we were all pretty excited just because we wanted to have a chance, we wanted this game (against Buffalo) to mean something," Lightning forward Alex Killorn said. "But it seems like that's the way it's been going. The problem is we left it in the hands of another team, and you can't let that happen at the end of the season. Teams that want to make the playoffs, things are going to happen. We can't put ourselves in that situation."
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said he had his hopes up with Pittsburgh ahead by a goal in the final period, but Toronto earned its spot in the postseason by playing playoff-caliber hockey at the end of the game.
"Empty feeling when they score that empty-netter and the season was over," Hedman said.
POSITIVE TAKEAWAYS: Despite missing out on the postseason for the first time since 2013, the Lightning did a number of good things, particular down the stretch, from which the team can build on next season. Most notably, the way a number of AHL callups from Syracuse were able to assimilate into an injury-riddled lineup and produce at a high level bodes well for the health of the franchise.
"I think this last stretch has been very encouraging with all the guys coming up from Syracuse and coming in and playing at a really, really high level," Bolts defenseman Anton Stralman said. "That's been a lot of fun. We've played some really good games here of late.
"But, it wasn't enough."
On February 3, the Lightning occupied last place in the Eastern Conference, but since, the Bolts have gone 19-6-4, tied with Chicago for the second best point percentage in the NHL (.724) behind only Washington.
"I think we can take a lot of the way we finished the season, dealing with a ton of adversity, a lot of guys injured, a lot of young guys coming up, really the way we played throughout the last 20-some odd games, 30 games, was nice and hopefully we can take that into next season," Killorn said.
The Lightning made up considerable ground over the last two months to even get into the playoff discussion, but, unfortunately, the deficit was too great to overcome. Late season pushes by Toronto and Boston certainly didn't help the Bolts' cause either.
"We played some really good hockey as of late," Hedman said. "It's real disappointing, real disappointed it's the last game of the season tonight. But real proud of the way we responded to adversity and never folded even though things didn't look good…We gave it everything we had but it's still real disappointing not to make the playoffs."
WHAT WENT WRONG: The Lightning were projected as one of the top candidates to hoist the Stanley Cup before the 2016-17 campaign got under way.
So why then will the Bolts be watching playoff hockey this year instead of playing it?
"Just inconsistency, obviously not good enough in the first half of the season," Hedman answered. "We put ourselves in this position. We were behind for most of the year. It's a tough league to make the playoffs, especially when you put yourself in a position like that. That's got to be a lesson learned for us. Obviously, you're going to see a hungry, motivated team coming into next year."
The Lightning started the season on a positive note, winning five of their first six games. But that early season success masked warning signs that eventually led to the team's undoing.
"I think it's just a matter of coming together as a team and playing for one another instead of individuals," Stralman said. "And I think that's the main reason we have success here of late is we play as a team, nobody goes out there on their own agenda. When I look back to that first half, even though we won games early on, I don't think we played good hockey. That kind of gives you a false comfort. You win games and you think you're doing well and then when you get into that mode where you're still playing the same way and you start losing, that's when it spirals downwards. That's what it did, and then we got caught and can't find our way back. We're just in that place where you tumble around and couldn't find our game and that's what cost us."
ICE CHIPS: Andrei Vasilevskiy was the first goaltender off the ice from Sunday's morning skate and will likely get the call in net tonight for the season finale. Vasilevskiy will be looking for his 23rd victory of the season…The Lightning can sweep Buffalo for the first time in franchise history with a win tonight. The Bolts have won all three prior meetings this season…J.T. Brown was on the ice for the Bolts' morning skate and could be ready to return to the lineup tonight. Brown has missed the previous two games with a lower-body injury.