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Lightning needed more grit, less glitter to avoid quick playoff exit

Postseason mentality during record-breaking regular season could have paved successful path

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

TAMPA -- The Tampa Bay Lightning's biggest challenge in the aftermath of a historic loss in the Stanley Cup Playoffs will be trying to reason with difficult questions that may not have answers.

How do you reconcile tying an NHL record with 62 wins playing one way, and that way might also be the reason they couldn't win one game against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference First Round? 

How do you change playing style to have a better chance to win in the playoffs when doing so could mean winning fewer games in the regular season, making it harder to get to the playoffs?

 

[RELATED: Lightning have structure to win Cup despite sweep, Stamkos says | Lightning can win Cup with Cooper, core players, GM says]

 

"We are going to take a step back and analyze the situation, but at the end of the day we're not going to come up with a clear answer as to, 'This is the one thing that cost us the series, this is why we didn't play our best come playoff time,' " Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois said. "We're going to come up with some hypotheses."

The Lightning have to use them all to re-evaluate their approach in the regular season if they're going to erase the negative stigma that comes with being the first team in NHL history to get swept in the first round after finishing with the League's best record.

Tampa Bay must become playoff tough by playing a playoff style before the playoffs begin. Tying the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings record for most wins in a season didn't do that. 

"We had a record-breaking year in terms of wins, but I think in a lot of those games we kind of skilled our way in a lot of those games, and our special teams was great," forward Alex Killorn said. "But in the playoffs there are games when you're not going to be able to skill your way out of it. We have to play with more of a playoff mentality throughout the season, which is difficult to do for 82 games but [necessary] to kind of build your way into the playoffs.

Video: What will Lightning change in the upcoming months?

"You're trying to figure out what to do better. I think we can't look so much at the wins and losses, but the way we're playing has to be more of a point of focus."

The Washington Capitals went through the same conundrum for years. They grew thicker skin, adapted their style in the regular season to be heavier and harder to play against, carried it into the playoffs and came out on the other side as Stanley Cup champions last season. 

To go to another sport for an example, the University of Virginia men's basketball team became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the NCAA men's basketball tournament last year. They won the national championship this year.

"You know what all those things do, they give you hope, and hope is a powerful, powerful thing," coach Jon Cooper said. "Whatever we draw on this summer, even if it's painstakingly watching every single game from here on to the middle of June, we will be back. We should be doing everything and anything to get ourselves back, but we will be back."

Cooper's confidence, and the confidence BriseBois has in Cooper and the core group of players, might provide some solace for how things will look in the future. But for now, the Lightning have to look at some hard numbers, find their true meaning and use them in honest analysis.

Twenty-three of their 62 regular-season wins came when the opponent scored the first goal, 15 when they trailed after the first period, and nine when trailing after the second. They led the NHL in wins in all three categories.

Video: Blue Jackets sweep Lightning for first series win

That's a lot of come-from-behind wins. And that's not typically a recipe for sustained success in the playoffs.

The Lightning went 11-3-0 after clinching a playoff berth on March 8, so it was hard to argue when they lauded their ability to handle success. But they allowed 43 goals in those 14 games, 3.07 per game. You typically don't win in the playoffs when you allow that many goals, especially when that's how you're playing going into the playoffs.

"It's easy to poke holes and say the pucks were going in the net, and you're right, they were," Cooper said. "And that can be masked a little bit by the fact we won a bunch of games. There were different things that came into play too."

Like players going for personal milestones, including forward Nikita Kucherov's chase of the NHL record for most points in a season by a Russian-born player. He got it in the 82nd game to finish with 128 points (41 goals, 87 assists), one more than Alexander Mogilny's 127 (76 goals, 51 assists) in 1992-93. 

Tampa Bay was chasing the NHL wins record and eyeing the record for most points in a season, 132, set by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens. It finished with 128.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets were playing aggressive, physical, structured and disciplined hockey to fight their way into the playoffs. They were playing playoff hockey before the playoffs began.

"The Presidents' Trophy won't help any team to win in the playoffs," goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy said. "[The Blue Jackets] brought hard work and attitude."

The Lightning brought a regular-season mentality that cost them Game 1, when they had a 3-0 lead and Columbus on the ropes after 20 minutes. They lost 4-3. They never recovered.

"I think there was a little bit of arrogance in the way we played offensively," Cooper said. "To that, we're culpable because instead of winning the game 3-0 or 3-1, we wanted to win it 6-1."

That may not have happened if they had established a playoff mentality and edge in the regular season. 

The teams that win in the Stanley Cup Playoffs usually can look back to a point in the regular season when they adapted, changed, found a way and took off. The Lightning never felt they had to adapt because they kept winning. 

In the end, it's the reason they lost.

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