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Tampa Bay Lightning feel future is bright, despite early exit from NHL playoffs

TAMPA, Fla. - The Tampa Bay Lightning are disappointed, though not discouraged.

Despite being swept in the first round of the NHL playoffs, the young team led by Steven Stamkos has plenty of reasons to feel encouraged about the future.

One year after struggling to the 28th-best record in the league, the Lightning finished second in the Atlantic Division and posted the third-best mark in the Eastern Conference.

The Montreal Canadiens eliminated them from the post-season in four games, but coach Jon Cooper said none of his players should hang their heads because the Lightning had a successful season.

"It's been a transition year for us in an unbelievably positive way," said Cooper, who's completing his first full season behind the bench.

"I don't want this series to be looked at as they were a failure," Cooper added. "Those guys got swept in the first round, but they had a heck of a year."

Stamkos missed 45 games because of a broken right leg but still amassed 25 goals and 40 points in 37 games to help Tampa Bay return to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

The 24-year-old captain has scored more goals than any NHL player since the start of the 2009-10 season. His absence from early November to just before a late-season trade sent Martin St. Louis to the New York Rangers created unexpected opportunities for several young players who helped the team stay afloat while Stamkos was out.

Goaltender Ben Bishop set a franchise record with 37 victories before a left elbow injury sidelined him for the final week of the regular season and the playoffs.

Rookie Ondrej Palate led the team with 59 points and another first-year player, Tyler Johnson, set a club record for rookies with 24 goals. In all, Tampa Bay's rookies combined for 201 points, more than twice as many for first-year players from any other team.

"It's been well documented what this team has gone through this year," Cooper said, adding that few people gave the Lightning much of a shot at making the playoffs when the season began.

Stamkos said it's important young players learn from their post-season experience. The Lightning dropped the first two games to the Canadiens at home and didn't feel they played their best hockey until the third period of Game 4 in Montreal on Tuesday night.

"Everyone's probably feeling a little embarrassed. But in the long run, you probably had to go through something like this," Stamkos said.

"I think we will learn," the captain added, "that sacrifice, determination and work ethic is what wins at this time of year."

Ryan Callahan, the former Rangers captain obtained in the deal that sent an unhappy St. Louis to New York, agreed.

"This means nothing if as a group (the Lightning) doesn't realize how hard the playoffs are and how consistent you have to be moving forward," Callahan said. "It's a waste if you don't learn from it."

Eight rookies made their playoff debut in Game 1, while another key player—goalie Anders Lindback, standing in for Bishop—entered the series with just 13 minutes of post-season experience. Six first-year players notched their first playoff points in the opener, won by the Canadiens 5-4 in overtime.

The next step is returning next season and proving this year's success wasn't a fluke.

"The amount of youth that we have here is very promising," Stamkos said. "We want to be a perennial playoff team. This is a start."

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