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Lightning's path to redemption begins today

Tampa Bay hopes to use this playoff disappointment to improve heading into next season

by Bryan Burns / TampaBayLightning.com

So where to go from here?

That seems to be the pressing question from Bolts nation following a gut-punch First Round exit by Columbus, who swept away a historic 62-win and 128-point regular season in four knife-twisting losses.

Obviously, changes need to be made. The nature of the salary cap and the expiring terms on a few players' contracts will see to that. And the Lightning have now lost six-straight playoff games dating back to last season's Eastern Conference Final loss to Washington, getting outscored 26-8 over that stretch, a clear signal the Bolts haven't yet figured out how to play their best in the postseason when it matters.

But don't expect the Lightning to blow things up just for the sake of change. The core of this team and the coaching staff have won a lot of games, playoff games included, during their tenure with Tampa Bay. The prevailing thought is a tweak here, a philosophy change there, a comprehensive look at how to become more playoff ready can be the missing ingredient to a Stanley Cup run.

Video: Exit Interview | BriseBois Opening Remarks

The Tampa Bay Lightning are still a really good hockey team.

Six days in April doesn't suddenly change that.

"There will be some changes. Today, it's too soon. The emotions are still too raw," Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois said during the team's exit day interviews at AMALIE Arena, a soul-sucking process every season for all but one NHL team. "I'm in no position to give you any indication to what those changes will be. We're going to look at the entire situation. We're going to look at our players, our contracts, what we have coming from the minors, what's available out there whether it be a trade or free agency and we're going to make the best decisions we can in order to put ourselves in the best position to hopefully succeed next season."

The opening round series against Columbus was maddening in the sense that everything the Lightning did well during the regular season went against them in the postseason. Tampa Bay finished the regular season with 319 goals, the most in franchise history and the most in the NHL since the 1995-96 season.

In the four games against the Blue Jackets, the Bolts averaged just two goals a game, all of those coming when they were behind, save for Game 1 when they sprinted out to a 3-0 lead in the first period in what was maybe their finest period of hockey of the season before Columbus rallied to win the series opener late.

Defensively, the Lightning were one of the best teams in the League down the stretch. From January 1 through the end of the regular season, the Bolts allowed just 104 total goals, fourth least in the League. And they were backed by arguably the top goalie all season, Andrei Vasilevskiy leading the NHL for wins (39) for a second-straight season and ranking in the top 10 for both goals-against average and save percentage.

Against Columbus, the Lightning gave up three or more goals in every game and 19 for the series, an average of 4.75 per game.

Tampa Bay's power play was the best in the NHL during the regular season.

It connected on just one-of-six power plays in the postseason, the lone goal not coming until Game 4 in the series. Over the final two games, the Lightning had just one power-play opportunity altogether.

A penalty kill that made a remarkable turnaround from the season prior, going from 28th in the NHL in 2017-18 (76.1%) to first in the League this regular season (85.02%), was decimated in the postseason, allowing five goals over 10 times shorthanded, a paltry 50 percent success rate.

Video: Exit Interview | Jon Cooper

Nothing, it seemed, went right for Tampa Bay against Columbus.

"It's tough to swallow because our expectations, not only outside of the room but inside the room were really high," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "We created those expectations with our play all season long. And they were pretty tough expectations to match. Trust me, everybody in the room, it's killing them more than anybody."

As one-sided as the First Round series ultimately was, it still could have swung the Lightning's way. Game 1 was a killer, the Bolts relinquishing a 3-0 lead under a late Columbus rally and never really regaining their swagger following that staggering loss. The Lightning had opportunities to put that game away too. Would the outcome of the series have changed had Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky not slid over just in time to rob Nikita Kucherov's power-play one-timer on the doorstep early in the second period, a goal that would have put the Lightning ahead 4-0? Or later on that same power play when Kucherov rifled a shot off the crossbar from the right circle, a shot he made more often than not in the regular season?

"For two periods (in Game 1), there was another team looking for answers [Columbus] and we really weren't," Cooper said. "I think it was a little bit of arrogance in the way we played offensively. It was a bit of a mindset that probably cost us that game and then it went downhill after that. You're not going to win one series in one game, but it really tilted the mindset of the series. And to that, we're culpable, because instead of winning the games 3-0 or 3-1, we wanted to win it 6-1. That mentality cost us a little bit."

The Columbus series is in the past now. The Blue Jackets won their first playoff series in franchise history, and kudos to them for coming into the series with a detailed game plan on how to eliminate the Lightning's speed and skill and frustrate them into what we saw over four games. Columbus is as dangerous an eight seed as the Stanley Cup Playoffs have ever seen, and whichever team has to face them next is in for an immense challenge in defeating them.

Now, it's up to the Lightning, this core group of players and coaches, to learn from the mistakes they made against the Blue Jackets and regroup.

"Now is not the time to make excuses," BriseBois said. "It's the time to show some humility. It's time for us to lick our wounds, roll up our sleeves, get to work and focus on doing what we need to do so that next year we're more successful."

There's precedent for the Lightning to follow too. Two consecutive seasons the Washington Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy and were the League's favorite to win the Stanley Cup only to come up short in back-to-back Second Round defeats at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The following season in 2017-18 when nobody really gave them a chance because of the previous two missed opportunities, an under-the-radar Caps team peaked at the right time and won the franchise's first Stanley Cup, defeating the Lightning along the way in a thrilling seven-game series in the Eastern Conference Final.

There are examples outside of hockey as well that show how a major setback can be a defining moment for a group. The University of Virginia was embarrassed by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in the first round of the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament in 2018, the tourney's top overall team entering the competition becoming the first No. 1 seed ever to lose to a 16 seed in the first round.

Video: Stamkos on Not Making Excuses

A year later, the Cavaliers recovered brilliantly, defeating Texas Tech in the final to win a national championship.

The Lightning can look to these examples for guidance in their own journey for atonement.

"I don't think you're a competitor if you wouldn't use this as some sort of motivation moving forward," Cooper said.

From the darkest days come the greatest triumphs.

The Lightning will process this loss, sulk for a while, let it simmer and then get back to work writing their own redemption song.

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