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Lightning confident they'll learn from early playoff exit

'Rough week' in first round against Blue Jackets ended 62-win season

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

LAS VEGAS -- Four key members of the Tampa Bay Lightning are here to celebrate and potentially be honored for their historic and near historic accomplishments in the 2018-19 regular season.

Right wing Nikita Kucherov is a finalist for the Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award, which will be handed out at the 2019 NHL Awards presented by Bridgestone on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN). Defenseman Victor Hedman is a finalist for the Norris Trophy, goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy for the Vezina Trophy and coach Jon Cooper for the Jack Adams Award.

But as they talked about the season that was and what it means to be at NHL Awards Media Day on Tuesday, there was still a feeling of what could have been and what probably should have been lingering around Cooper, Hedman, Kucherov and Vasilevskiy.

 

[RELATED: Coburn signs two-year contract with Lightning]

 

The Lightning were swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference First Round after winning 62 games in the regular season, matching the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for most victories in an NHL season.

They are the first team to win the Presidents' Trophy and then get swept in the first round. Their offseason is already nine weeks old.

"We had a rough week and it cost us a season," Hedman said. "We look back and we'll learn from this."

That was the forward-looking message the players and Cooper all mentioned Tuesday.

"Man up and move forward," Cooper said. "That's what you've got to do."

To that end, they insist they've digested and gained perspective from what happened against the Blue Jackets, including blowing a 3-0 lead in Game 1 and losing 4-3, and getting outscored 15-5 in the next three games, including 7-3 in Game 4, a season-ending loss at Nationwide Arena on April 16.

"Everyone left this year with a really sour taste in their mouth," Hedman said. "We've proven in years before that we have what it takes to make it deep in the playoffs. This is just another bump in the road that we've got to be able to rally around and become a better team."

Video: What will Lightning change in the upcoming months?

They believe they will, that the adversity will fuel them next season to go on another deep run.

The Lightning have reached the Stanley Cup Final once and lost in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final twice since 2015. Cooper and many of the core players from those teams are still around and signed long-term, including Hedman, Kucherov and captain Steven Stamkos.

Also signed for at least three more seasons are forwards Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde, J.T. Miller and Alex Killorn, and defenseman Ryan McDonagh. Forwards Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph, and defensemen Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev each have one year left on their entry-level contracts.

"We're built for years ahead," Hedman said. "We like the team that we have and the steps we've taken. The regular season wasn't a fluke. We're a good team."

They have the backing of their general manager, Julien BriseBois, who in the immediate aftermath of losing against the Blue Jackets said he would not overreact to the four-game sweep by making any drastic changes to the roster.

He has so far held true to that by re-signing defensemen Braydon Coburn to a two-year, $3.4 million contract and Jan Rutta to a one-year, $1.3 million contract.

The Lightning still have work to do to keep their core intact; center Brayden Point can become a restricted free agent on July 1. Vasilevskiy has one year remaining on his contract before he can become an RFA.

But BriseBois' words and actions have resonated with the players.

"When you hear that from your general manager it means a lot," Kucherov said. "It means they have confidence in us and one week doesn't change anything."

But one week did change the Lightning's perspective on what they need to do next season, provided they're good enough to get back into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"Yeah, we cannot get comfortable in the regular season," Vasilevskiy said.

Suggesting they can't get comfortable in the regular season again is another way of saying the Lightning did get comfortable this season. They were good enough to overcome it but wilted in the face of pressure in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

That's the life they've been living for nine weeks. It's what they will live with all summer.

They have to go through it again: the offseason, training camp, exhibition schedule and 82 games to earn the chance to get another crack at it, to get rid of the would'ves, could'ves and should'ves that still plague them even when they could be honored for their accomplishments.

"It's a different story every year," Cooper said, "and the big thing for us is we want next year to be the story about us."

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