MONTREAL — The Lightning's postseason run ended before it ever really began.
When goaltender Ben Bishop dislocated his left elbow April 8 — an injury confirmed by the team — the prospects of advancing out of the first round of the playoffs dropped significantly. His absence, coming off a Vezina-caliber regular season, was a factor in Tampa Bay being swept by the Montreal Canadiens.
With 12 Tampa Bay players making their Stanley Cup playoff debuts against Montreal, the Lightning missed out on Bishop's postseason debut the most.
While the sting of failing to pick up a victory will linger, the season was about growth and experience for a team looking to make the playoffs an annual occurrence. Through everything that happened this season, the focus was on a team loaded with rookies guided by a first-year NHL head coach getting their feet wet.
“This has been a transition year for us in an unbelievably positive way,'' coach Jon Cooper said. “We had 12 players make their NHL playoff debuts, and that's probably unheard of in a series. And ultimately our goal was to make the playoffs, but we also wanted to make sure Tampa Bay Lightning fans everywhere, wherever they were, were proud of their team, because I sure as (heck) am proud.
“They made me a better person, a better coach, and I couldn't have been more proud to coach that team. I don't know if that will sink in, but that was the gist of the (postgame) speech.''
The nature of playoff hockey — the intensity, desperation, microscope — has to be experienced to truly be understood.
“I always compare it to getting your driver's license,'' Cooper said. “You can go up there and get your license and get an A on the test and say, 'This is awesome, I'm going to jump behind the wheel of a car.' But once you get behind the wheel of the car and drive it, you are not a good driver. You may have passed the test, but you need the experience behind the wheel.
“You need to be in these positions to feel the atmosphere, to understand the magnitude of how everything is just magnified. Until you are in it, you really don't understand. Naturally, we would have liked to extend the series, but what I don't want this year to be looked at is 'What a failure, these guys got swept in the first round.' ''
Instead, Tampa Bay finished second in the division, closing the regular season on a four-game winning streak. Losing the only four playoff games won't take away from all that went on from October to April, or the experience gained.
“It's not easy to win at this time of the year, and I think a lot of guys learned that,'' said Stamkos, named captain March 6. “But let's be honest with ourselves, the most important thing is we can't be satisfied that we got here. I think we will learn. Sacrifice, determination and work ethic is what wins at this time of the year, and the next time around we have, a short experience, but the experience of playing in the playoffs.''
Rookies are finalists
Lightning forwards Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat joined Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon on Wednesday as finalists for the Calder Trophy, awarded to the league's top rookie.
MacKinnon, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2013, led all rookies in points (63), goals (24-tied), assists (39), power-play goals (8), game-winning goals (5-tied) and shots (241).
Johnson, the first undrafted player named a Calder finalist since Chicago's Ed Belfour won in 1991, tied MacKinnon for the rookie lead with 24 goals, also a Tampa Bay rookie record, was third in points (50) and third in plus/minus (plus-23). He was the second rookie in league history to score five power-play goals and five short-handed goals.
Palat was second among rookies in points (59) and second in plus/minus (plus-32), while leading all rookies in scoring since Jan. 1 with 44 points in 42 games, including 14 multipoint games.
Tampa Bay is the first team with two finalists for the Calder Trophy since Chicago's Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in 2008. The winner will be announced during the NHL Awards show June 24.