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Monday, May 28, 2018
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Martin Fennelly Columns

Fennelly: This time, Bolts couldn’t overcome

— Nothing looks good when it’s on the business end of a broom.

The Lightning were swept from the Stanley Cup playoffs Tuesday night in Montreal. That had never happened before in franchise history. The Canadiens saw to it with a 4-3 win, on a power-play goal with 43 seconds left. A tripping call on poor Cedric Paquette, about 175 feet from the Lightning net, after we thought the referees had put away their whistles. Figures.

Enough of that.

Maybe this young team will learn from the sting of this short-lived playoff experience.

“We didn’t come in here looking for experience,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “We came in here looking for wins.”

Gone is a season filled with surprises, good, bad and ugly, one in which the Lightning, more often than not, overcame.

They tried to do it again in Game 4.

They were down three games to none. Then they were down three goals to one in the second period.

They came back and tied it in the third period, on goals by Victor Hedman and Tyler Johnson.

“If we were going down, we were going down swinging,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

Then, that tripping call, eventually followed by Max Pacioretty’s goal past Kristers Gudlevskis, who had replaced Anders Lindback.

And there went the season. A good season at that. Only it didn’t feel that way in the losing dressing room.

Maybe in a few days, or next week, or next month ...

“You hope we remember this feeling,” Stamkos said. “I don’t want to use the word ‘embarrassed,’ but it’s definitely not fun.”

Montreal outplayed the Lightning, plain and simple. I still would have liked to have seen this series with Ben Bishop in the net. The Vezina contender never made it back from his last injury. Lindback left the series with a 3.91 goals-against and an .881 save percentage.

But Cooper and his entire team share the blame.

They played their worst hockey at the worst possible time.

Swept aside is no way to exit the playoff stage.

“It’s been a transition year for us, in an unbelievably positive way,” Cooper said.

Agreed. Before this season, no one gave the Lightning a chance for much of anything. They’d finished 28th in the league last season. They were going to be buried in a new division under the likes of Boston, Montreal, Detroit and Toronto. It seemed like 82 games of hard labor.

The Lightning made it a joy. They won 46 times and finished with 101 points. They parted ways with Vinny Lecavalier before the season. They won. They lost scoring star Stamkos 17 games into the season. He missed 45 games. They won. Captain Marty St. Louis demanded a trade and was traded. What a mess. They won. Bishop’s injury late in the season was just one hit too many.

Twelve Lightning players made their playoff debuts in this series. That showed at times. But most of the kids did remarkable work this season. Johnson and Ondrej Palat, who scored the first goal in Game 4, were among the top rookies in the league this season.

Valtteri Filppula more than replaced Vinny’s production, though he faded badly in this series. Ryan Callahan brought back some of the heart and soul that fled with Marty, but not much else come postseason. Victor Hedman took a great leap forward on the back line, in the general direction of elite status. And the Lightning found their goaltender.

Yes, a lot of things went right under Cooper’s steady hand in his first full season as an NHL coach.

Still, nobody looks good under a broom.

And the season means nothing if this team doesn’t come back stronger for it.

Cooper said it the other day: They can’t be one-hit wonders.

“Sometimes you do have to take a step back before moving forward,” Stamkos said. “We want to be in the playoffs every year. It shouldn’t be a once-in-a-while occurrence. And I think we have the pieces to do that.”

I think they need a few more pieces. Some more help for Stamkos. Bring Callahan back. And land a big-name defenseman, maybe Shea Weber.

This season means nothing if this team takes a step back.

Otherwise, it will be all about the broom.

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