TAMPA — When the Lightning landed Saturday afternoon from Montreal after winning back-to-back road games, pulling within a point of a playoff spot, fans greeted players at the airport.
They carried signs with messages such as "You make us proud."
The Lightning was eliminated from playoff contention Saturday night with Toronto's 5-3 win over Pittsburgh. For a team many picked as a Stanley Cup favorite last summer, Tampa Bay is headed for a longer-than-expected offseason after today's regular-season finale against Buffalo at Amalie Arena.
Though there will be disappointment about a seemingly lost season, the year hasn't been a lost cause. It's impressive that Tampa Bay found a way to sniff the postseason after sitting in last place in the Eastern Conference on Feb. 5. Without captain Steven Stamkos (mid-November knee surgery) and lately Tyler Johnson (lower-body injury), among others, the Lightning rode a rookie-filled roster on an 18-6-5 run.
Ultimately, a recent 7-1-1 run wasn't enough for the Lightning to move into a playoff spot, with the Maple Leafs (9-2-1) and Islanders (7-3-1), also pushing for a spot, going on rolls, too. But considering all its injuries, it's telling that Tampa Bay, with a win today, could finish just three points off last season's total — a season in which it reached the Eastern Conference final.
"That shows the fine line it is to make the playoffs every year," coach Jon Cooper said.
Cooper said he's proud of the team. So are many fans, who can greet players again today — for one final time — on the blue carpet at 2 p.m. in the plaza outside Amalie Arena.