Insights from Lightning's season of pain

“These guys are giving it everything they had,” coach Jon Cooper says of his Lightning, still with a slim playoff chance after injuries and inconsistencies.
“These guys are giving it everything they had,” coach Jon Cooper says of his Lightning, still with a slim playoff chance after injuries and inconsistencies.
Published Apr. 6, 2017

TORONTO — The Lightning's playoff hopes were put on life support with Tuesday's 4-0 loss to the Bruins.

And its dressing room at TD Garden fittingly looked like an infirmary.

There was rookie Brayden Point slumped in his stall, his right shoulder wrapped. Tyler Johnson, playing on one healthy leg, was in the trainer's room, which has been a busy place. Nearly $20 million of the Lightning's salary cap remains stuck wearing suits, including injured captain Steven Stamkos, who was unlikely to return tonight against Toronto.

Several other banged-up players would not have played Tuesday had the season not been on the line, coach Jon Cooper said. The Lightning had no choice but to play them. And for the second time in six days, it played short-handed; forward Gabriel Dumont abruptly left to be with his wife, who gave birth to a boy, Lucas.

This looks like a team that has run out of gas making a playoff-spot run that is looking like it was too little, too late.

"These guys are giving it everything they had," Cooper said. "It's tough to hold that high standard of play for so long. We didn't have any margin for error. And now our margin for error is razor thin. We're not done yet."

The Lightning is done unless there's an improbable turn of events. Tampa Bay, with 88 points, needs to win its final three games. Then either Toronto — five points ahead in the Eastern Conference's second wild-card spot — has to get one point or fewer in its final two games or the Senators — six points ahead in second in the Atlantic Division — has to lose all three of its final games in regulation.

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Oh yeah, and the Islanders, tied with the Lightning in points, have to slip up, too, because they have the tiebreaker.

But that Tampa Bay is playing meaningful, playoff-style hockey with four days left in its regular season is impressive considering where it was two months ago, in the East cellar. It is 17-6-4 since. "We don't quit," defenseman Victor Hedman said.

And when the autopsy on this season is done, the year will be viewed through a much different prism than if the preseason Stanley Cup favorite merely had stumbled into the draft lottery. This rookie-filled group has come close to pulling off the improbable, and it might already have done that had it gotten help. Boston has won six straight; Toronto is on an 8-2-1 streak.

This run has revealed a lot about the organization's and coaching staff's character and depth. And the performance, or lack thereof, of established veterans has provided guidance for what should be a makeover that continues in the summer.

"There is a group of guys in there that have been there before and given everything," Cooper said. "And there's a lot of guys in there that have never been in this situation before, and (Tuesday) was a playoff game. It's a learning experience."

LIGHTNING STRIKES! PODCAST: Beat writer Joe Smith and columnist Tom Jones break down the season's final week.

Here's what we've learned:

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT: Point, 21, not only has held his own as a first-year pro, he arguably has been one of the team's most consistent players. With Stamkos out since mid-November knee surgery, he has stepped into a No. 1 center role and thrived. Defenseman Jake Dotchin has been a pleasant surprise, balancing the blue line. Both should be key parts of next year's team. Center Yanni Gourde, who can be an unrestricted free agent this summer, might also be in the plans.

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Complacency catches up: Too many times Tampa Bay has lacked urgency, believing it would be able to flip the switch for better play (hence its 1-5 record against league-worst Arizona, Vancouver and Colorado). That should stick in players' minds during a long offseason.

Core belief: It has been telling which players have stepped up and which have regressed as the Lightning has been ravaged by injuries. Nikita Kucherov (38 goals) has established himself as an MVP candidate and go-to-guy. Jonathan Drouin has become the dynamic player everyone expected, many of his career-high 21 goals clutch ones. Ondrej Palat has continued to be the versatile engine up front. It wouldn't be surprising to see Palat and Johnson, who can be restricted free agents this summer, signed soon. Wing Alex Killorn, in the first year of a seven-year, $31 million deal, has not been a consistent-enough factor. Vladislav Namestnikov and J.T. Brown have taken steps back. Cedric Paquette hasn't been able to stay healthy.

On the bench: Remember at midseason when fans wondered if Cooper would be fired? It was silly then, and it's more so now. Cooper and his staff creatively have integrated a total of 37 players into the lineup, without having Stamkos and Ryan Callahan (hip) for most of the season. And the Lightning didn't wilt after losing veterans Ben Bishop, Brian Boyle and Valtteri Filppula at the trade deadline.

If the season ends in three days, it will have been a disappointment. But it won't have been a lost cause.

MORE RECALLS: Forwards Cory Conacher and Michael Bournival were recalled from AHL Syracuse on Wednesday.