The Tampa Bay Lightning overcame so much this season to author a special story of perseverance and promise.
Goaltender Ben Bishop resurrected his career, turning in a regular season worthy of Vezina Trophy consideration. Leading scorer Steven Stamkos went down for a majority of the season after sustaining a broken leg in November. Yet the Lightning refused to fold and finished second in the Atlantic Division, holding off a challenge from the Montreal Canadiens at the end of the regular season.
Stamkos returned March 6 and played in 20 games down the stretch, scoring 11 goals and 17 points. In his absence, rookie forwards Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson stepped to the forefront. Each scored more than 20 goals and is among the three finalists for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie.
However, the Lightning could not find the same level of perseverance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They did not overcome the hardships placed in their path during an Eastern Conference First Round series against the Canadiens and were eliminated in a stunning four-game sweep, the first in the history of the franchise.
Here are the five biggest reasons Tampa Bay's season came to an earlier-than-expected end:
1. Goal drought
The Lightning could score goals in the regular season, managing 240, the third highest total in the Eastern Conference and 25 more than the Canadiens. In the postseason, those offensive instincts went into hibernation too often.
Tampa Bay scored 10 goals in the series; eight came from forwards and four of those eight were from forwards not named Stamkos or Palat. Two forwards had more than two points.
Tampa Bay did not sustain enough pressure to generate the offense it had enjoyed during the regular season. The Lightning averaged 26 shots per game during the sweep, which is the second-worst average among the 16 playoff teams and almost four fewer per game than in the regular season.
It is rare a team is completely healthy at the start of a playoff series. It is even more unlikely it remains healthy throughout. So, typically, injuries should not be used as a crutch. In this case, however, it is justified. The injury sustained by Bishop near the end of the regular season, revealed to be a dislocated elbow, was disastrous.
The dropoff from Bishop, a legitimate entrant in the Vezina debate, to Anders Lindback is precipitous. The numbers alone bear this out. Bishop had a 2.23 goals-against average and .924 save percentage in the regular season. Lindback was 2.90 and .891. But it was more than the numbers, it was the confidence Bishop gave the Lightning. It was lacking with Lindback and they played a different game in the playoffs. In the end, Lindback was not even on the same stratosphere as his opponent across the ice, Carey Price. It was, simply, an insurmountable advantage for Montreal.
In-series injuries to Palat, one of the team's primary offensive threats, and Radko Gudas, the physical defenseman, also did not help.
3. Lack of discipline
This Lightning group is relatively new to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and, at times, it showed. They were not always ready for the bright lights or the added intensity.
Tampa Bay took 15 minor penalties in the series; the Canadiens took 12. There were three high-sticking penalties in there, including two double minors. Another six were restraining fouls, hooks and holds. Those types of penalties tend to be deadly in the playoffs.
Another area where a lack of concentration manifested itself was in the high amount of turnovers. The Lightning committed 40 giveaways, according to League stats. Such carelessness wreaks havoc with attempts to play a puck-possession game.
4. Chasing the game
You need to be ahead to win games, especially in the postseason when comebacks are even more of a rarity than during the regular season. Tampa Bay led for 3:34 during the series. Each of its leads came in Game 1 and one lasted for 19 seconds. Of the 258:08 played in this series, Tampa Bay was at least one goal behind for 168:19. That is a recipe for disaster.
5. Youth movement
Lost in the success of this Lightning team is how young it is. Coach Jon Cooper was in his first full year in the NHL. The team dressed nine rookies at some point in the playoffs, and six played three or more games in the series. With Bishop out, their goalie tandem had 86 NHL games of experience between them. The backup, Kristers Gudlevskis, finished with more appearances in the postseason this spring (two) than in the regular season (one). Six Lightning players to make an appearance had more than 20 games of playoff experience, and four of those saw significant time in the series. In many ways, it appeared to be a case of too much, too soon for this team.
"I don't think there's a lot of teams that come into the playoffs with, I think we had 10 rookies in our lineup," Stamkos said. "Obviously we're not going to make excuses, but it was a pretty whirlwind season for our team with the adversity that we had to overcome. I think it just kind of caught up to us here and we weren't getting the bounces, we weren't getting the breaks in this series. I thought the last couple of games maybe we deserved to have a couple of bounces go our way and they didn't, but that's what it is in the playoffs and hopefully we now know what it takes to win."