TAMPA, Fla. — The end to this Tampa Bay Lightning campaign will always feel incomplete. We saw one team for 82 regular-season games, then another for the final four in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. One team excelled and prospered with so many questions, injuries and the March trade of arguably the franchise’s best player ever. The other, with the exception of perhaps two or three periods, was outplayed for the entirety of the Montreal Canadiens’ sweep.
There’s no script for how the postseason will play out.
One team drinks from the Stanley Cup, that sweet reward washing the victor’s lips. All the others are left to answer questions about the past, future and the purgatory of the present.
Thursday was the Lightning’s time to analyze their abrupt end.
"At the end of the day," center Steven Stamkos said, "hopefully we can all learn from this."
Two days have passed since Montreal ended Tampa Bay’s season. The result was no big surprise. There was an acceptance among most after Game 3 that the end was near. Perhaps coach Jon Cooper’s squad could force a Game 5 back at home and take one last swing while limping on one leg. But few expected them to win four consecutive games after digging such a deep hole. Their elimination felt inevitable.
On Thursday, there were moments to revisit the past eight days during exit interviews at Tampa Bay Times Forum. Players who spoke shared many themes after tying a bow on the 2013-14 season: They’re excited about the future, the playoffs were a learning experience, there’s room to do more.
This crazy ride will help. The thud of an end will offer lessons too.
"The most important thing is now we can have some experience for next year and next couple years," winger Ondrej Palat said. "I can see a good future."
The good future is easy to see. That’s what should be the message after this week. Players like Palat and center Tyler Johnson, both Calder Trophy finalists, will improve. So will Stamkos. Expect to see hyped prospect Jonathan Drouin sometime soon.
Yes, the sweep in the Stanley Cup Playoffs felt awkward, felt unlike the same Lightning team that scratched and survived all season. It was disappointing. Tampa Bay underachieved.
But this winter was remarkable when you consider it as a whole. If you were offered 101 regular-season points and a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2011, almost anyone would jump at the chance. That deal sounded like a fantasy last fall.
Not so much by early March. The progress was stunning. So were the tests this group overcame: Vinny Lecavalier’s departure, Cooper growing as a leader in his first full NHL season, Stamkos’ broken right tibia, Marty St. Louis’ trade rumors, St. Louis’ trade to the New York Rangers.
"They are all experiences," said Steve Yzerman, the Lightning’s vice president and general manager. "Ultimately, our goal is to win at some point here. … It’s never smooth sailing. There are things that are unforeseen happening that you’ve got to learn to adapt and be ready for them."
It’s hard to see next season becoming crazier than the last. For one, Stamkos isn’t going anywhere, and stability with the man who wears the "C" below his left shoulder will serve the franchise well. Next, Palat and Johnson have grown into legitimate stars and prime pieces to complement Stamkos.
There also won’t be goaltending uncertainty in training camp. Ben Bishop became one of the league’s best in net before he tore ligaments in his right wrist in January. Then a dislocated left elbow sustained in early April kept him sidelined for the rest of the regular season and the playoffs’ first round. He should be elite if he remains healthy.
"Any time you can play playoff games in a season," Bishop said, "it’s going to help the team."
Playoff berths should be the expectation now. The Lightning grew up before our eyes throughout the past seven months. They went from a team too young, too undisciplined on defense and too questionable in net before the opener Oct. 3 in Boston to something more mature.
They changed how we think of them. That’s not easy.
They changed how they think of themselves. That’s even harder.
Cooper stressed that the Lightning next year have "got to be a playoff team. I’m excited for that. I’m excited to be back here." Stamkos added, "Hopefully, this bitterness that you feel right now, you use that as motivation next time out." Those reflections and others Thursday hinted at men unsatisfied with just a taste.
They want more to chew.
They will have another chance to show they belong soon.
None of this was a dream back in September. That was the stunning thing about seeing players leave the arena one by one, most of them carrying sticks and blue duffel bags and walking into the offseason with high hopes for later. They prospered where most expected them to fail.
"It’s everybody — young guys, old guys, every single person that’s going to put on a Tampa sweater has a lot of responsibility to keep this going," Johnson said. "We’re building a tradition here. We want to be in the playoffs every single year starting this year. We’ve got to keep it going."
That will be the question to follow when the Lightning gather again. Can they make the playoffs a habit? Can they keep this roll going? Can they take more strides and win a playoff game, win a series, win the Eastern Conference, take that sip from hockey’s ultimate prize?
It will require work. But, even after all the problems that followed them before the end in Montreal, there’s reason to think this season was movement toward days when they become consistent contenders. It’s hard to consider otherwise.
"I would say more excited than optimistic," Cooper said, placing an appropriate cap on the season. "Optimistic — I think there’s a little bit of doubt in there."