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Lightning blames early season complacency for playoff miss

Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Ondrej Palat (18) looks on while returning to the bench after the Chicago Blackhawks score their third goal during first period action at the Amalie Arena in Tampa Monday evening (03/27/17).
Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Ondrej Palat (18) looks on while returning to the bench after the Chicago Blackhawks score their third goal during first period action at the Amalie Arena in Tampa Monday evening (03/27/17).
Published Apr. 10, 2017

TAMPA — Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman helplessly watched the final minutes of Saturday's Maple Leafs-Penguins game.

Tampa Bay needed a Toronto loss to make Sunday's regular-season finale matter. But the Leafs rallied for a 5-3 win that sealed the Lightning's stunning fate: out of the playoffs for the first time since 2013.

"It's just an empty feeling when (the Leafs) score that empty-net goal," Hedman said Sunday. "Your season is over."

Many thought the Lightning's season would end in June with a Stanley Cup parade, not a meaningless early April game against Buffalo. Players tried to take the positives out of Tampa Bay's equally remarkable and resilient run, its rookie-laden group going 18-6-5 after falling to last place in the Eastern Conference on Feb. 4.

"If we played that way all year, we would have been fine," defenseman Braydon Coburn said.

That was the most disappointing part. Players took the blame for a lack of urgency and consistency in the first half of the season, digging themselves a hole they couldn't get out of.

Sure, injuries were significant, especially the knee injury to captain Steven Stamkos in mid November that kept him out for the rest of the season. But a lot of the Lightning's pain was self-inflicted. The last day Tampa Bay was in a playoff spot was Dec. 4. It spent the rest of the season chasing one.

"It's the first half that put us in this situation," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "That's the time when maybe you don't realize where you are in the standings and you think you have time to figure it out.

"But when you put yourself in a hole like that, and finish like we did and don't get in, it makes you realize you need that urgency right off, and we didn't have that. That's why we're here."

There were warning signs early, even when the Lightning started 10-6-1. It fell behind by two goals in three of its first four games, winning two of them.

"I think it's a matter of coming together as a team and playing for one another instead of as individuals," Stralman said. "The main reason why we had success as of late, we played as a team. Nobody goes out there on their own agenda. And when I look back at that first half, even though we won games early on, I don't think we were playing good hockey.

"And that kind of gives you a false comfort. You win games and think you're doing well, and then when you get in the mode where you're still playing the same way and start losing, that's when it spirals downwards. And that's what it did, and then we got caught and can't find our way back. We were just in that place where we just tumbled around and couldn't find or game. And that's what cost us."

That makes two consecutive years the Lightning has needed a significant second-half run to be in the playoff hunt. It needed nine- and seven-game winning streaks in 2015-16 to make the postseason, ultimately reaching the Eastern Conference final. This season's team finished with just three fewer points (94) than last season's.

But the points in October count as much as they do in March. And a 1-5 record against the league's three worst teams — Arizona, Vancouver and Colorado — came back to haunt the Lightning. Maybe the sting of missing the playoffs will finally allow the message to sink in that complacency is costly.

"We've had some really good runs, I think," wing Alex Killorn said. "You realize how much fun playoff hockey is and kind of just want to get back to the playoffs. You have to realize the season is a grind, there has to be more focus put on the season. Even though you want to play in the playoffs — that's the fun part of the season — there has to be more of a grind during the season for us."

Instead, the Lightning will have to watch the playoffs on TV, like everyone else. That should eat at it during a longer-than-expected summer.

"That's got to be a lesson learned for us," Hedman said. "Obviously, you're going to see a hungry, motivated team coming into next year."