After a hard-fought five-game series, the Tampa Bay Lightning closed out their first-round playoff matchup against the New Jersey Devils with a 3-1 win on Saturday. Much like every game in this series, this victory was far from assured for Lightning, with the Devils keeping it close and posing a comeback in the final minutes of the third period. Despite the play of the Devils squad, though, the Lightning’s postseason experience ultimately allowed them to persevere against this highly talented, yet relatively green opponent.
Even though they lost to the Lightning 4-1 in their first playoff series since 2012, the future is bright in New Jersey. This quick exit shouldn’t be seen as a failure, but a necessary growing pain for the long-term success of the Devils. As the Lightning well know, a hard loss in the playoffs can build a winning foundation for the future.
Lightning’s Past Mirrors This Young Devils Squad
Interestingly, the fate of the Devils mirrors that of the early years of this current Lightning squad. Back in the 2013-14 season, the Bolts were coming off of a terrible year, where they finished third to last in the NHL standings. On opening night, they started a roster full of talented but untested rookies, with no one expecting them to reach the postseason for at least one or two more years.
However, all that young Lightning squad did was win in the regular season. Despite an injury to Steven Stamkos, the loss of a captain – Martin St. Louis – to trade, and a backup goaltender taking over the starting role for the team, they kept finding ways to pull out a victory night in and night out. After a shockingly successful season, they clinched a playoff spot against a Montreal Canadiens team that they dominated 3-0-1 during the regular season.
Needless to say, confidence was high around Tampa Bay at the start of the 2014 playoffs. During the 10-year anniversary of the Lightning winning the Stanley Cup, this new squad felt destined to win it all again. A favorable matchup against the Canadiens was a perfect jumping-off point for what many expected to be a deep playoff run.
Reality Struck the Lightning Hard
Once they reached the postseason, though, they hit a wall in the form of the Canadiens. While the Lightning kept each game close, they were unable to break through against the more experienced Canadiens. They had many opportunities to win, but came up short in each game, losing by one goal three times in the series.
On Apr. 22, 2014, the Canadiens finished a four-game sweep of the Lightning, sending the upstart team from Tampa home empty-handed after a successful regular season. Despite all of their hard work and effort, they were cast aside just a week into the postseason.
Losing in the 2014 Playoffs Made the Lightning Better
Being swept out of the postseason after a year of success taught the Lightning a hard but important lesson… Playoff hockey is a different world. You can’t just rely on the skill of one player to carry you to a victory like in the regular season. Everyone, from your top forward and starting goaltender to the bottom pairing defensemen have to play perfect games each and every night to win in the playoffs. In short, they had to be more than good to find success: they had to become great.
When they returned to the playoffs in 2015, you could see that they took this failure to heart. No longer were they wide-eyed at the idea of playing postseason hockey, and they understood that they had to fight each and every night to keep their Stanley Cup dream alive. This mindset helped carry them all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, and the Eastern Conference Final in 2016.
Failure for Devils Can Lead to Future Success
There’s no reason to believe that this season was a fluke for New Jersey. Much like the 2013-14 Lightning, they have a young and talented roster that will only get better with time. This postseason elimination shouldn’t be seen as an ending of this season, but the beginning for the new-look Devils. This is a team that should not only contend for the Metropolitan Division title but challenge top teams like the Lightning for Eastern Conference supremacy in the coming years.
So while this loss hurts now, it could be that final experience that helps push the Devils over the top. If history repeats itself, New Jersey will be back and ready for more than a taste of the postseason next year.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.