Looking ahead for the Tampa Bay Lightning: Assess but don't panic

Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports

As each NHL team is eliminated from playoff contention -- either mathematically or by losing in the postseason -- we'll take a look at why its quest for the Stanley Cup fell short in 2018-19, along with three keys to its offseason, impact prospects for 2019-20 and a way-too-early prediction for what next season will hold.

What went wrong

The regular season ended, that's what went wrong. The Tampa Bay Lightning tied the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the most regular-season wins in NHL history, with 62. They led the NHL in goals per game (3.89, the highest since 1996), in power-play proficiency (28.2 percent) and on the penalty kill (85.0, tied with two other teams). They were an absolute juggernaut, winning 30 of their games by three or more goals and losing two games in a row in regulation only once, in early November, when Andrei Vasilevskiy was injured.

Until they lost the first two games of their first-round playoff series to the Columbus Blue Jackets, of course.

How the Jackets eliminated the Lightning, the abridged version: with a neutral zone-clogging defensive system, with uncharacteristically effective playoff goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky, with offensive contributions from their star players while the Lightning's were silent, and by winning the special-teams battle, mostly by staying out of the penalty box. They were not the extreme underdog they were portrayed to have been -- winning seven of eight games down the stretch, finishing with the 13th-best record in the NHL -- and simply outplayed the Presidents' Trophy winners.