MONTREAL -- A difficult season for Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos came to a disappointing end Tuesday night.
Stamkos could only watch in frustration as Max Pacioretty's power-play goal with 42.6 seconds left in regulation gave the Montreal Canadiens a 4-3 victory, completing a four-game sweep of the Lightning and sending the Canadiens into the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The loss capped a trying season for Stamkos, who missed 45 games with a broken leg and saw longtime linemate Martin St. Louis dealt to the New York Rangers at the NHL Trade Deadline on March 5, one day before his return. Stamkos inherited the captain's "C" when St. Louis was traded and helped fuel a late-season run that saw the rookie-filled Lightning finish with 101 points to earn second place in the Atlantic Division.
But the loss of star goaltender Ben Bishop to a dislocated elbow in the final week of the season, combined with the Lightning's inexperience, caught up to the Lightning in their Eastern Conference First Round series against the Canadiens.
The Lightning erased a 3-1 third-period deficit in Game 4 and appeared to be headed for overtime. But rookie Cedric Paquette was called for tripping with 2:11 left in regulation, and the Canadiens capitalized on the power play to complete the sweep.
Stamkos lamented the loss but also said there are better days ahead for the Lightning.
"It's tough. I thought we showed a lot of character in this room coming back and we played like we had nothing to lose in third," said Stamkos, who hadn't played in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since making his postseason debut in 2011. "I thought we were the better team and we controlled most of the play. It's tough to see a penalty called at that time of the game.
"I thought the refs did a pretty good job of putting the whistles away and letting us play. Then a play 200 feet from our net gets called. It's a tough way to lose on a power play goal with under two minutes to go in the game. But we showed a lot of character, we stuck together as a team, but I think we learned a lot about what it takes to win in the playoffs."
Stamkos didn't agree with the tripping call on Paquette, but he wasn't about to lay blame on that for his team being swept.
"Let's not kid ourselves they were the better team for most of the series," he said. "They looked like they wanted it more and competed hard. Hopefully we learned a lot of lessons about how hard you have to compete and sacrifice in order to win in the playoffs. Hopefully we can use this going forward."
"It's tough because we were in a hole again and it's tough to play on the road when you're down. We needed to get that first goal and some momentum going. It's like we waited until we were down before we kicked it up. So that's a tough way to play especially in the playoffs."
Stamkos said the sweep was more than just a valuable learning experience for a young team that had 11 players making their postseason debut.
"It's always tough to look down the road especially when you try to stay in the moment and you get here and you realize it's kind of a fresh start come playoff time," Stamkos said. "Anyone can beat anyone and we weren't coming in here with the mindset that we have a lot of young guys so we'll just go in there and get the experience and take it from there.
"We wanted to win and we didn't do that. We're disappointed in the way we played but sometimes you do have to take a step back and look forward and realize we want to be in the playoffs every year. It's not a once-in-a-while occurrence, and I think we have the pieces to do that."
But that inexperience and the adversity ultimately proved to be too much.
"I don't think there's a lot of teams that come into the playoffs with, I think we had ten 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."