Tampa Bay general manager Julien BriseBois said Thursday he is not going to overreact to the Lightning’s historically quick post-season exit and he still has confidence in coach Jon Cooper.
After tying the NHL record for wins during the regular season, the perennial Stanley Cup contender became the first team in the expansion era to be swept in the first round of the playoffs after leading the league in points. Three of the four games against Columbus were decided by at least two goals.
“What really compounds the disappointment is that we didn’t play anywhere near our best hockey during the series. And now, the question is why? Why didn’t we play our best when it mattered the most,” BriseBois said.
“The reality is it’s not something that I’m going to be able to pinpoint to any one thing,” BriseBois added. “I know it would make it a lot easier for all of us if we could have a clear narrative. We lost because of, fill-in the blank. The reality is it’s a lot more complex than that.”
The Lightning won 62 games, matching the league mark set by the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings. While the players said they believe they are a team built for success in the playoffs, an inability to get back to the Stanley Cup final the past four years suggests otherwise.
“Now is not the time to make excuses, it’s a time to show some humility,” BriseBois said. “It’s the time for us to lick our wounds. Roll up our sleeves, get to work and focus on doing what we need to do so that next year we’re more successful.”
Cooper, in the final year of his contract, was given a multiyear extension on March 26.
“My faith in Coop has not wavered at all,” BriseBois said.
Tampa Bay had three players – Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point – score 40-plus goals. Kucherov had a league-leading 128 points, the most by any player since 1995-96 when Pittsburgh’s Mario Lemieux had 161 and teammate Jaromir Jagr had 149.
All three Lightning stars were mostly non-factors against the Blue Jackets.
Stamkos had one goal and one assist, and finished minus-8. Kucherov, suspended for Game 3 for a boarding penalty the previous game, picked up two assists and was minus-4. Point scored one goal and was minus-5.
“It’s just another opportunity wasted,” Stamkos said. “We have all the players in place but at the end of the day you’re judged on winning championships. There’s no real words. We say a lot of things, but you have to go out on the ice and do it, and we didn’t do it.”
Tampa Bay scored 325 goals in the regular season – most by any team in 23 years – but was outscored 19-8 by the No. 8-seed Blue Jackets.
The first-round debacle was just the latest in a string of post-season disappointments. The Lightning held a 2-1 lead in the 2015 Stanley Cup final before losing to Chicago in six games. In 2016 (Pittsburgh) and 2018 (Washington), Tampa Bay failed close out 3-2 Eastern Conference-final series leads.
This year’s collapse stung, too, because it not only came against a team the Lightning dominated during the regular season, but because Columbus is coached by John Tortorella, who was behind the bench for Tampa Bay’s only Stanley Cup championship, in 2004.
“We put ourselves in this position because we didn’t meet our expectations,” Cooper said. “I’m going to relish the moment when we’re all back here again and we have met those expectations as a group.”
There were warning signs.
The Lightning had a tendency to fall behind during the regular season, posting 29 comeback wins, an NHL record.
“In a lot of those games we out-skilled [our way] out of those games,” left winger Alex Killorn said. “But in the playoffs, there’s times where you’re not going to be able to skill your way out of it. I think just we have to play a more playoff mentality throughout the season. Build your way into playoffs.”