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Fight off the frustration, Lightning, and don’t panic

Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (98) carries his sticks and gear as he leaves the arena the day after their playoff run ended. (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (98) carries his sticks and gear as he leaves the arena the day after their playoff run ended. (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Published May 25, 2018

TAMPA — Don't change a thing.

Don't blow it up. Don't fire anyone. Don't overreact.

Thursday was not an easy day in Lightning Land. It was the day after the end of a season that ended much too soon. It was a day when bags were packed, questions were asked and blame was assigned.

Emotions are still raw. Disappointment is still fresh. Frustration is still high. It was not a day to make hasty decisions. Today is not that day either. Or tomorrow. This is going to take some time to digest.

"You can't get discouraged by the setbacks," general manager Steve Yzerman said. "You can't overreact to the setbacks. Whether you're a player or a coach or as a (general) manager, you can't lose your confidence, and you can't give up. It's a test of your will, and you just got to stick with it."

Just because the Lightning didn't win the Stanley Cup this season doesn't mean it's never going to win the Cup.

This roster is young enough and good enough to win it all. This coaching staff is good enough. The worst thing it can do is tear the whole thing up.

So, you ask, if it's good enough to win a Cup, then why didn't it? Well, for starters, winning the Cup is really, really hard. Of the 16 good-to-great teams that make the playoffs, only one ends its season with a victory.

"It's hard to explain just how hard it is to get here," coach Jon Cooper said. "There are 30 teams that are going to get Monday morning quarterbacked. One team is not."

Fans aren't happy hearing that. And I get it. Fans are mad. They're frustrated. They wanted their team to win the Cup, and it didn't. Now they want to blame someone. Some want to blame Cooper. Some want to blame stars Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov for not scoring. Some want to blame Yzerman for not having bigger players.

Some don't know whom to blame, and that makes them even more upset.
Trust that the Lightning is upset, too.

"It's everything from agonizing to angry to disappointed to shock," Cooper said. "And then you're sure it's going to turn into proud and happy for our group. So many good emotions about coaching this team. But just the emotions of how it ended is tough because you don't prepare for this. There is no way to prepare."

But don't you dare tell Cooper this was not a good season.

"If anybody sits and says this was an unsuccessful season, then I have to question that," Cooper said. "To be one game away from being in the Stanley Cup final … it's hard to just get this far. Now it's just solving the piece of the puzzle of getting over the top."

Yzerman agrees.

"If you're going to measure every year on, 'Hey, it's a failure if we win or not,' I don't think I look at it that way," Yzerman said. "There's a process. There's no definitive timeline for it. Just continue to improve. Continue to hang around, I guess, and we're going to win one of these things. No, it's not a failure. It's a disappointment at this stage."

So what went wrong? Well, maybe the Lightning just ran into a Capitals team that was better in seven games than it was. Or, as Cooper points out, maybe it ran into a team that was better in just one game.

"You can pick apart all you want," Cooper said. "It was one game and we didn't score, and we lost the game. That's how razor thin it was. I don't think you can look back and say, 'What are the missing pieces?' For 60 minutes, it's wasn't our time. It was their time."

There will be some changes. There always are with teams. It's just a natural evolution. There could be a trade or two. There could be a free agent or two. A young kid or two could make his way up from the minors.

But there won't be wholesale changes. And there shouldn't be. For the third time in the past four seasons, it's possible the Lightning will have lost a gut-wrenchingly close series to the Stanley Cup champion. So the Tampa Bay team that takes the ice on opening night next season will look very similar to the one that skated off the ice Wednesday night.

"We've got to keep pushing," Yzerman said. "We've got to get better. We've got to figure out a way one of these years to win a Stanley Cup."

It won't be easy, but it's going to happen. Maybe.

That's the thing about hockey. It's tough to win a championship. But the Lightning still has a team good enough to do it.