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Lightning accent positives after playoff sweep

by Lonnie Herman

TAMPA -- For the Tampa Bay Lightning, two days weren't nearly enough to take away the sting of being swept out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Losing four in a row to the Montreal Canadiens in their Eastern Conference First Round series is too fresh a scar to have healed so quickly. The hurt was still evident Thursday, when the Lightning gathered at Tampa Bay Times Forum for end-of-the-season interviews with the coaching staff.

"It stings. It always stings," forward J.T. Brown said. "You never want to lose four straight games. You never want to get knocked out in the first round."

"It's starting to sink in," Calder Trophy finalist Tyler Johnson said. "I think we overhyped things and we were out of our element a little bit. The first two games we didn't play our style. That goes to the point where we were too excited. That's going to happen."

"It still hurts," fellow Calder Trophy nominee Ondrej Palat said. "You're still sad or mad. I don't know. It's still in us."

They all know the excuses. Starting goaltender Ben Bishop was out with a dislocated elbow. Plenty of others played through injuries, and the Lightning's playoff lineup included 10 rookies.

"I don't think there are many teams in the League this year or over the last 50 years, probably, that had 10 rookies in their playoff lineup," captain Steven Stamkos said.

Despite the pain and disappointment, there was the feeling the future is bright.

"We have the young pieces that we haven't had in the last few years, but they are here now," Stamkos said. "When you look at it from that point of view it is kind of special what we were able to do."

What they did was earn 101 regular-season points while maneuvering through a shifting field of misfortunes, starting with the broken right leg that sidelined Stamkos for 45 games. That was followed by an unsettling period when franchise icon Martin St. Louis requested then was granted a trade on March 5. Bishop was plagued by a series of injuries, including a torn ligament in his wrist that forced him to play with a cast for half of the season and will require surgery. He injured his elbow during the final week of the season and was unable to play against the Canadiens.

Add to that a rookie-filled lineup and a coach in his first full NHL season.

"It wasn't your typical year," Stamkos said.

With a full season behind the bench, coach Jon Cooper is looking forward to next season.

"I would say, heading into the future, I am more excited than optimistic," Cooper said. "Optimistic has a little bit of doubt in there. We got to be a playoff team, and I'm excited about that. We have a stable group and we have to add the pieces around them.

"We have fewer holes to fill. Now we can have a plan as to which direction our team needs to go in. There is less uncertainty in goal now, there is less uncertainty in our forward group and we know what our defense can do. It makes it exciting that there is a little less uncertainty going forward."

Less uncertainty, yes, but general manager Steve Yzerman is taking nothing for granted.

"Let's look back in five years and see if this was a first step," Yzerman said. "Hopefully it wasn't just a blip. With the nucleus that we have, our expectation is to compete for a playoff spot. But because we made it this year it's not a given that we are in automatically next year. [It was] our first experience in the playoffs for our coach and a lot of these players; you go through these things. We got swept. You learn from it. We'll be better prepared in the future.

"I like the way this team plays," Yzerman said. "I think we have a real good coach here who only will get better with experience."

Cooper preferred to dwell on at his players' accomplishments rather than the disappointments.

"For every potential bad thing that happened, 10 good things happened," Cooper said. "I really like the way everything unfolded. I just didn't like the past week."

The taste of getting swept was bitter, but Stamkos hopes it can turn into a positive.

"You feel like it was just yesterday that we were really excited about clinching a playoff spot," Stamkos said. "To be out in that fashion is very disappointing for our group.

"Hopefully the bitterness we feel right now will be used as motivation the next time around."

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