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Past playoff exits motivate Bolts heading into 2018-19 season

With three conference final appearances in the last five seasons, Tampa Bay opens training camp hoping this is the year they take the next step

by Bryan Burns / TampaBayLightning.com

Ryan Callahan stood in front of a handful of reporters inside an auxiliary locker room at AMALIE Arena on the opening day of training camp for the 2018-19 season, discussed the progression of his offseason shoulder surgery - he started shooting two weeks ago and is still on pace to return in early November - and talked about "unfinished business" for he and his teammates.

Defending Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman said the Bolts are a "hungry team" after reaching the Eastern Conference Final in three of the past four seasons but unable to reach their ultimate goal.

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos spoke of the "empty feeling" of going deep in the playoffs but not winning the Stanley Cup.

Clearly, the memory of last season's Game 7 loss to the Washington Capitals in the conference final hasn't faded for the Tampa Bay Lightning despite nearly four months of distance.

"It lingers. It sits with you, fuels you," Callahan said. "It's frustrating. You get so close again, have another great year."

Video: Callahan | Media Day

The Lightning have had plenty of great years of late. In the last five seasons, they've qualified for the postseason four times, made it to the Eastern Conference Finals three times and reached the Stanley Cup Final once. But the Stanley Cup remains elusive.

The Bolts hope this is their year, much in the same way last year was Washington's year after numerous near misses and playoff setbacks for the Caps.

"It's always in the back of your head for sure, every single time you get to the playoffs and you don't win the Cup, there's some empty feelings," Stamkos said. "There's nothing you can really do about it now. There's no point in dwelling on it. You learn from it, you move on. This is a group that obviously has had success in making deep playoff runs. You have to have the belief every year you come into camp that this is going to be the year that you win. You don't want to overlook anything or expect anything because of what you've done in the past. We expect this group to have a really good camp and start the season on the right foot."

The group for the Tampa Bay Lightning this season is pretty much identical to last year's group. Only a handful of changes have been made to the roster. The Bolts lost Chris Kunitz and Andrej Sustr to free agency and gained a depth forward in Andy Andreoff, who was acquired in an offseason trade from Los Angeles in exchange for reserve goaltender Peter Budaj. There are a pair of new assistant coaches in place, Jeff Halpern moving up from the Lightning's AHL affiliate in Syracuse and Derek Lalonde joining the organization after coaching the AHL's Iowa Wild last season, the two bringing "outstanding energy" and a "different insight" according to head coach Jon Cooper.

With the same players returning and some new ideas from a revamped coaching staff, the pieces are in place for another deep run for the Lightning.

"We pretty much have the same team but at the same time we've got to push ourselves to become better because we haven't reached our ultimate goal yet," Hedman said. "So we've got to push ourselves inside this group to take another step. And it's up to us leaders, veterans on the team to lead the way. Starting tomorrow, we've got to put our best foot forward and make sure we have a good training camp and we're in good habits and a good spot before the season starts."

Because the roster hasn't changed much, this season's training camp would appear to be less about open roster spots and position battles and more about preparation for a long season.

But there are always surprises according to Cooper.

Video: Cooper on his approach heading into 2018-19 season

"There's been guys we thought were earmarked for Syracuse that found their way on the team and never looked back and it's worked vice versa," Cooper said. "There's spots available, you've just got to go fight for your spots. And maybe on game one that spot isn't yours, but maybe it is in game six or seven because you've made that impact on the coaching staff or management and that's what these players are here to do and we're watching."

The fight for roster spots, ice time and increased responsibility begins Friday at the Ice Sports Forum with the first on-ice session of training camp.

Friday also marks the beginning of what the Lightning hope is a special season.

After all, they're weary of coming up short, having that disappointment linger all offseason and then answering questions about past failures.

"There's only so many times you can talk about the same things over the past couple of years with the success that we've had," Stamkos said. "It's just, we want to take that extra step. You can say it any which way you want, but we're kind of tired of talking about it. We want to go out there and do it."

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