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Time, fortune run out for Lightning

Tampa Bay makes late charge but comes up short of playoffs

by Corey Long / Correspondent

TAMPA -- The Tampa Bay Lightning went 19-8-4 after the NHL All-Star break, but it was not enough to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.

The Lightning were eliminated when the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-3 on Saturday to clinch the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. Tampa Bay (41-30-10) will close out the season against the Buffalo Sabres at Amalie Arena on Sunday (5 p.m. ET; SUN, MSG-B, NHL.TV).

"It was a roller-coaster ride for sure," defenseman Braydon Coburn said. "But it's a disappointment. Anytime you are not in the playoffs it's a disappointment. I think all of the guys in here feel fairly similar."

The Lightning have enjoyed playoff success in recent years; they advanced to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, where they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games, and reached the 2016 Eastern Conference Final, where they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games.

Based on that recent resume, Tampa Bay was considered a favorite to win the Stanley Cup in some circles. But center Steven Stamkos tore the lateral meniscus in his right knee on Nov. 15, had arthroscopic surgery and missed the final 65 games of the season.

More injuries and inconsistent play followed, and the Lightning were in last place in the Eastern Conference as late as Feb. 5. But Tampa Bay finished strong behind NHL career-best seasons from Nikita Kucherov, who entered Sunday with 84 points (40 goals, 44 assists) in 73 games, and defenseman Victor Hedman, who had 70 points (15 goals, 55 assists). The Lightning also received major contributions from rookies and call-ups from Syracuse of the American Hockey League.

Rookie center Brayden Point, who had 37 points (16 goals, 21 assists) in 67 games, and defenseman Jake Dotchin (10 assists, plus-10 in 34 games) took on big roles during Tampa Bay's late surge. Two minor league call-ups, center Yanni Gourde and defenseman Luke Witkowski, took advantage of the opportunity to make a name for himself in the NHL.

Video: TBL@TOR: Point buries Palat's smooth feed for PPG

"I think this last stretch has been very encouraging with all the guys coming up from Syracuse and playing at a really high level," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "That's been fun."

Forward Alex Killorn said the reality of the failed run will really sink in when he's at home watching the playoffs.

"It hits you when you're not playing and just kind of sitting around," Killorn said. "We wanted to have a chance, we wanted [Sunday] to mean something, but that's just the way it's gone this season."

Stralman said even though the game Sunday will have no bearing on the playoffs, the Lightning want to close strong and put the finishing touch on their spirited second-half charge.

"I knew there would be a lot falling in our favor for this game to mean anything tonight," Stralman said. "It is what it is. I hope everybody realizes that this is not what you want and everybody prepares for a run next year."

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