Lightning believes lack of urgency early cost them playoffs
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman helplessly watched the final minutes of Saturday's Leafs-Penguins game.
Tampa Bay needed a Toronto loss to make Sunday's regular season finale meaningful. But the Leafs rallied for a 5-3 win that sealed the Lightning's fate. The preseason Stanley Cup favorites will be watching the playoffs at home for the first time since 2013.
"It's just an empty feeling when (the Leafs) score that empty net goal," Hedman said. "Your season is over."
The Lightning tried to take the positives out of its equally remarkable and resilient run, its rookie-laden group going 18-6-5 after falling to last place in the Eastern Conference Feb. 4. "We never folded," Hedman said. But players lamented what got them in such a big hole in the first place, a lack of urgency and consistency in the first half of the season.
Injuries, especially the one to captain Steven Stamkos, were costly. But a key culptrit was complacency. The last day Tampa Bay was in a playoff spot was Dec. 4. It's been chasing it ever since.
"It's the first half that put us in this situation," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "That's the time when maybe you don't realize where you are in the standings and you think you have time to figure it out. But when you put yourself in a hole like that, and finish like we did and don't get in, it makes you realize you need that urgency right off and we didn't have that. That's why we're here."
There were warning signs early on when the Lightning was winning, a 10-6-1 start. It fell behind by two goals in three of the first four games, winning two of them.
"I think it's a matter of coming together as a team and playing for one another instead of as individuals," Stralman said. "The main reason why we had success as of late, we played as a team. Nobody goes out there on their own agenda. And when I look back at that first half, even though we won games early on I don't think we were playing good hockey. And that kind of gives you a false comfort. You win games and think you're doing well, and then when you get in the mode where you're still playing the same way and start losing, that's when it spirals downwards. And that's what it did and then we got caught and can't find our way back. We were just in that place where we just tumbled around and couldn't find or game. And that's what cost us."
That makes two consecutive years the Lightning needed a significant second-half run to be in playoff position. Tampa Bay needed a nine and seven-game winning streak in 2015-16 to make the postseason, ultimately reaching the Eastern Conference Final. This team could finish with just three fewer points (94) with a win today over the Sabres.
But the points in October count as much as they do in March. And a 1-5 record against the league's three worst teams, Arizona, Vancouver and Colorado came back to haunt them. Maybe the sting of missing the playoffs will finally allow the message to sink in that complacency is costly.
"We've had some really good runs I think," wing Alex Killorn said. "You realize how much fun playoff hockey is and kind of just want to get back to the playoffs. You have to realize the season is a grind, there has to be more focus put on the season. Even though you want to play in the playoffs, that's the fun part of the season, there has to be more of a grind during the season for us."
Killorn said it won't feel real until the playoffs begin Wednesday and the Lightning is watching at home.
"That's got to be a lesson learned for us," Hedman said. "Obviously you're going to see a hungry, motivated team coming into next year."