ATLANTA — Jeff Halpern dreads the next two months.
The Lightning's season is over after Saturday night's 6-2 loss to the Thrashers at Philips Arena, and a second straight season out of the postseason is its own kind of agony.
"The best day of the season is when the last Stanley Cup game is over and everybody is back in it," the Tampa Bay center said. "Until then, you've got to watch every guy in the world become a hero just by being in the playoffs.
"You want that opportunity. So as a player, you want to see the team rebound, and you put your faith in management and hope and expect they put the best possible team on the ice."
Give the Lightning this: It played hard against Atlanta with a 35-26 shot advantage and three first-period fights.
Steven Stamkos' 23rd goal upped his team rookie record, and Matt Pettinger got his eighth. But goalie Mike McKenna allowed four goals on 15 shots before being pulled, and the Lightning allowed two power-play goals, one short-handed, and often were pushed to the net by the onrushing Thrashers, who scored three in the second period for a 5-1 lead.
Tampa Bay (24-40-18) lost its ninth straight and finishes 29th in the league with 66 points, its fewest since 2000-01.
"A miserable year," Halpern said.
There were extenuating circumstances. Tampa Bay had 10 players hurt or sick Saturday, 11 for Thursday's home finale, and it lost 353 man games this season, forcing an influx of minor-leaguers.
All six defensemen Saturday spent time with AHL Norfolk.
"Who's kidding who," coach Rick Tocchet said. "A fair amount of players in that room aren't NHL players — right now. It's no slight to anybody. It is what it is."
"Let's put it this way," right wing Marty St. Louis said. "Thursday, I walked into the lounge, and it seemed like there was a whole other team in the room, so we were very thin.
"You hate to see guys being hurt. At the same time, we get young guys in the lineup. You see guys in situations, and you evaluate their progress. That's the only positive I take out of this year. It's going to help us in the long run."
That long run begins during Monday's exit interviews, when, Tocchet said, "we start rolling up our sleeves and getting this team competitive."
Halpern said he has "nothing but respect for guys in this locker room stepping into huge roles that probably shouldn't be asked of them."
That said, "Sixty-six points is not good enough. It has to change."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at email@example.com.
First Period—1, Atlanta, Armstrong 21 (Bogosian, Enstrom), 7:10 (pp). 2, Atlanta, Perrin 7 (Reasoner, Exelby), 16:30 (sh). 3, Tampa Bay, Pettinger 8 (Halpern, Quick), 17:17 (pp). Penalties—Armstrong, Atl (holding), :43; Melichar, TB (holding), 3:44; Pettinger, TB (holding stick), 5:30; Konopka, TB, major (fighting), 7:32; Boulton, Atl, major (fighting), 7:32; Artyukhin, TB, major (fighting), 7:56; Thorburn, Atl, major (fighting), 7:56; Pettinger, TB, major (fighting), 10:24; Bogosian, Atl, major (fighting), 10:24; St. Louis, TB (goaltender interference), 11:14; Slater, Atl (goaltender interference), 16:02; Boulton, Atl (unsportsmanlike conduct), 17:41; Stamkos, TB (holding), 19:22.
Second Period—4, Atlanta, Kovalchuk 43 (White, Hainsey), 9:15. 5, Atlanta, Hainsey 6 (Peverley), 14:09 (pp). 6, Atlanta, Armstrong 22 (Kozlov, Peverley), 16:32. Penalties—Prospal, TB (slashing), 14:06; Oystrick, Atl (interference), 16:46.
Third Period—7, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 23, :46. 8, Atlanta, Stuart 5 (Reasoner), 6:20. Penalties—Konopka, TB (high-sticking), 9:50; Pettinger, TB (slashing), 11:43; Perrin, Atl (goaltender interference), 14:12. Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 13-9-13—35. Atlanta 7-9-10—26. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 1 of 5; Atlanta 2 of 7. Goalies—Tampa Bay, McKenna 4-8-1 (15 shots-11 saves), Ramo (14:09 second, 11-9). Atlanta, Lehtonen 19-22-3 (35-33). A—17,122 (18,545).