Lightning feels the sting of first-round exit

“This group has a long summer now to live with this, to live with what happened,” Steven Stamkos says.
Lightning center Tyler Johnson carries his equipment bag and clutches his sticks while walking out with center Brayden Point (21). (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Lightning center Tyler Johnson carries his equipment bag and clutches his sticks while walking out with center Brayden Point (21). (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Published April 18
Updated April 19

TAMPA — Tyler Johnson walked down the hall with a bundle of sticks under one arm and his giant hockey bag over the other shoulder. Brayden Point walked next to him with only a phone in one hand.

But both players, and the rest of the Lightning, left Amalie Arena on Thursday weighed down by something heavier than any gear: the baggage of being swept in the first round of the playoffs.

Tampa Bay underperformed against the Blue Jackets, and everyone knows it.

Steven Stamkos called the wounds fresh. Coach Jon Cooper said the loss still stung two days after the series ended. Andrei Vasilevskiy said the upset is tough to swallow.

General manager Julien BriseBois said it the strongest.

“I can’t overstate my level of disappointment,” he said opening his wrap-up news conference for the season, “my level of disappointment in our players, in our coaches, with how our series unfolded.”

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The Lightning not playing its best hockey compounded the disappointment for BriseBois. It’s one thing to max out your capabilities and be outplayed. It’s another to know you could have done better and wonder if that would have made the outcome different.

“This group has a long summer now, a long summer to live with what happened,” Stamkos said.

The Lightning has two more months of summer than it wanted. That’s two more months to try to diagnose what went wrong for seven days in April.

There were no players in game-day suits Thursday, no standard-issued team gear in dressing room stalls. Players in flip-flops and shorts signified the season’s end, just as much as the full bags of gear.

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“Today we’d like to be practicing and preparing for tomorrow night, but we’re not,” Cooper said.

No one was sure how long the sting of this loss would last. This was about more than just losing a series, or losing in the first round.

Stamkos said every loss in the playoff stays with you. The recent ones are just fresher.

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “There’s really nothing to say. It’s just another opportunity wasted.”

That’s probably the best description of where the Lightning is right now. This felt like the year. The Lightning rolled through the regular season almost unbeatable. A trip at least to the Eastern Conference final seemed inevitable and winning the Stanley Cup probable. So many people thought the Lightning would win, the league decided to change its playoff-bracket contest and let entrants submit new brackets after the first round.

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All that was wasted in a poor showing against a surging Columbus team that seized its opportunity.

The Lightning knows it is the butt of the joke until someone bigger fails.

Alex Killorn said the team put itself in this situation, that it needs to learn from this. But after losses in the Stanley Cup final, the Eastern Conference final twice and now the first round in the past five years, he’s also tired of learning lessons in the playoffs.

“We’d like to teach the lessons,” he said.

To get to that point, the Lightning needs to find some source of motivation. Cooper suggested watching every game of the playoffs. There could be fresh pain there.

“We should be drawing on anything and everything to get ourselves back,” Cooper said, “but we will be back.”

The Lightning has been here before and said that before. Time to make it count.

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at Follow @dianacnearhos.

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at Follow @dianacnearhos.