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Lightning's pain is only temporary

MONTREAL

Late in the second period Tuesday night and Lightning superstar Steven Stamkos was zooming all alone into the Montreal zone.

As the puck worked its way toward him, Stamkos cocked his stick and was about to unleash a wicked one-timer that you just know was going to end up in the back of the net.

Instead, Stamkos' stick snapped in half and the puck strayed harmlessly into the corner. Stamkos furiously whipped what was left of his splintered weapon against the boards.

And that pretty much sums up the Lightning's run in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs — so much hope and promise ending in futility and embarrassment.

What a lousy ending. What a lousy feeling.

Right now, it hurts like heck.

Despite a gutsy third-period comeback that vanished with a heartbreaking, last-minute goal, the Lightning was ultimately and thoroughly pounded by a Canadiens team that was clearly more prepared for the playoffs.

But don't let this four-game sweep define the 2013-14 Lightning. This was a good season, way better than expected. And it feels like the start of something special over at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

"It's been a transition year for us in an unbelievably positive way," coach Jon Cooper said.

Getting to the playoffs showed what a great job the Lightning did this season. Getting knocked out of the playoffs so soundly showed just how much work the Lightning has left to become a legitimate Cup contender.

"I hope nobody looks back at this season and thinks what a disappointment this team was because I don't know of a team that has had to go through more of what those players had to," Cooper said. "Don't diminish what those guys did. It's pretty remarkable. … I mean, let's be honest, nobody thought this was going to happen."

True. The Lightning came into the season with no proven goalie and a roster full of kids. No one was predicting playoffs.

When Stamkos went down with a shattered leg in early November, the Lightning's quick start seemed doomed for a crash landing at the bottom of the league standings. It found a No. 1 goalie in Ben Bishop and not only survived, but thrived until Stamkos returned.

That was about the time then-captain Marty St. Louis, incredibly and unbelievably, begged his way out of town.

But instead of falling apart, the Lightning stormed into the playoffs. It finished with 46 wins. It finished with 101 points. It finished second in the Atlantic Division.

Who saw any of that coming?

"We're a better franchise today that we were when the season started," Cooper said.

But, no one saw the Lightning being on the wrong end of a broom in this series.

"It's disappointing," Lightning forward Ryan Callahan said, "that we didn't play the way we can and the way we should have."

This was clearly a different team without Bishop. It lacked that swagger that a reliable goalie gives you. Backup Anders Lindback ended up being pulled twice in the series. While he isn't to blame for the sweep, you just never had the feeling that his teammates fully believed in him.

Kid goalie Kristers Gudlevskis made enough big-time saves in his 22 minutes of action Tuesday that you can't help but wonder if the Lightning should have gambled and turned to him earlier in the series.

Meantime, fingerprints of the Lightning rookies — players such as Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, J.T. Brown and Cedric Paquette, whose tripping penalty led to Montreal's winning power-play goal — were all over this series, both good and bad. Twelve players made their postseason debuts.

You would think this postseason experience has to help those kids.

"Hopefully the guys realize what it takes now to win at this level, the sacrifice and work ethic they have to have on a consistent basis," Stamkos said. "Hopefully they use this as learning tool."

But, still, moments after being swept, Stamkos wasn't ready to look for silver linings.

"I know you have to sometimes take a step back to go forward, (but) sitting here right now, it's tough to say we had a great season and we're happy to get here," Stamkos said. "We didn't come in here looking for experience, we came in here looking for wins."

To get back to the playoffs and to get those playoff wins, the Lightning will have to make some offseason changes.

Don't be shocked if Callahan leaves for free agency and Lindback is not re-signed. This series showed many of the Lightning deficiencies, particularly on defense. The blue line must get steadier. Stamkos could use an offensive force on his line.

"Our thing now is we can't be a one-hit wonder," Cooper said. "We have to make the playoffs next year. To me, it's inexcusable if we don't."

It might not feel like it today, but future is bright. Very bright.

Not only is missing the playoffs inexcusable, but you know, it also seems unlikely.

Lightning's pain is only temporary 04/22/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 23, 2014 12:13am]
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