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Playoff series, however short, a learning experience for Lightning youngsters

MONTREAL - Alex Killorn likes what he has seen of NHL playoff hockey.

The third-year Tampa Bay forward is getting his first taste of post-season play, and even if it has been difficult for the Lightning, the experience alone has been an eye-opener.

"It's a lot faster," Killorn said Tuesday as the Lightning prepared for Game 4 of their best-of-seven series with the Montreal Canadiens.

"And when you're playing against the only Canadian team left, there's a lot more of you (reporters) in the room. There's a microscope on us, a magnifying glass put on everything. And not much room for error out there."

Even if it promised to be a short series for Tampa Bay, coach Jon Cooper's side will at least know that their large group of youngsters will at least get playoff experience under their belts.

"Just look at Game 3—we played in an extremely hostile, tough environment and I thought we played our best game," said Cooper. "The guys are learning. The guys are finding out what playoff hockey is all about and we're getting better."

Tampa Bay's American Hockey League team has been a powerhouse in recent years, and many of its players are now in the NHL.

In 2011-12, the Norfolk Admirals had a record 28-game winning streak and breezed to the Calder Cup, going 15-3 in the playoffs. After moving to Syracuse, N.Y. last season, they reached the final again, only to lose in six games to Grand Rapids.

The Lightning rookies include six 23-year-olds—Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Richard Panik, J.T. Brown, Radko Gudas and Andrej Sustr.

There are also 20-year-olds Nikita Kucherov and Cedric Paquette, and a pair of 24-year-olds who have been in the NHL the last two seasons but had not played in the post-season before this year—Killorn and defenceman Mark Barberio.

Palat and Johnson will likely be rookie of the year candidates after finishing second and third in scoring among first-year NHL players with 23 and 24 goals respectively. Gudas was considered among the top first-year defencemen.

The Bolts had a solid 101-point regular season to finish third in the Eastern Conference, but they struggled in the first two games at home against the Canadiens before rallying somewhat in a 3-2 loss in Game 3.

"I think as the series has gone along we've come together and we've played better hockey," said Killorn. "So I think it will make us stronger."

"The game is faster, more pressure, everything matters," Gudas said of his first NHL playoffs. "As a young guy, it's very important to get comfortable in this situation.

"It's great. It's fun to be part of, especially here in Montreal. It's a great atmosphere and it's fun to play under pressure. We can learn from our experience, and we can watch and learn from (the veterans)."

Cooper has been impressed by Paquette, a pesky centre who played two regular season games after spending most of the campaign in Syracuse.

"For him to come onto this stage and compete _ that kid's got fire in the belly, there's no doubt," said Cooper. "He's been exceptional for us.

"You can't teach what that kid has—he's determined, he's passionate, he's what you would call a gamer. I'm fairly certain that kid will be in this league for a while."

The Lightning are likely to be a fixture in the playoffs in the next few seasons with all their young talent, not to mention scoring star star Steven Stamkos, who is only 24. Copper feels that living through even one playoff series will make them better the next time around.

"You can tell the guys who were going to be players when the game just slowed down for them," he sad. "I takes little time for that.

"In the playoffs, everything's magnified, so it may not be so much the speed of the game, but your emotions are running so much higher and that makes the game a bit different. You have to be in those situations to understand how to deal with those situations and I think our guys are learning that. Eventually the game will slow down for these guys, but you have to go through it."

Note: Goalie Ben Bishop joned his teammates in their game-day skate, but Cooper does not expect him to be able to play unless the series goes to at least six games. Bishop is recovering from a left arm injury.

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