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Lightning confident they're set up for continued success

(AP Photo/John Bazemore)

By FRED GOODALL

AP Sports Writer

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) Three consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup Final, two championships and a strong - though ultimately unsuccessful - bid for a third.

Any way you list the accomplishments, it's been quite a run for the Tampa Bay Lightning, who feel they are nowhere close to being done after falling short of becoming the first team in nearly 40 years to win three consecutive NHL titles.

Losing to the Colorado Avalanche in six games was disappointing, however the talented core that's enjoyed more playoff success than any other team over the past decade remains intact and expects the Lightning to be a contender again next season.

"The pain is deep. I'm trying to put on a brave face, but no one gets to the Stanley Cup Final not to win the Cup," general manager Julien BriseBois said Tuesday. "You get to the Stanley Cup Final to bring home the Cup, especially this year when we had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to win three straight."

Captain Steven Stamkos, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, defenseman Victor Hedman and high-scoring forwards Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point form a star-studded nucleus that BriseBois will continue to build around.

"I don't think we're done. ... We're set up to be a really competitive team for the foreseeable future, BriseBois said, "and hopefully stars align again for us at some point."

While the team's biggest stars are all under contract for next season, BriseBois does face the challenge of trying to retain three key players - Ondrej Palat, Nick Paul and Jan Rutta - who can become unrestricted free agents next month.

Negotiations with each of the players' agents have started, and Paul - acquired from Ottawa at the trade deadline - stressed Tuesday that he'd like to remain with the Lightning after getting the first taste of playoff hockey in his career.

"I obviously love it here," Paul said.

"We're going to do our best," BriseBois said. "All I know is all three of them would like to stay here. We'd like to keep them."

Stamkos echoed the GM's sentiment that the Lightning are built to sustain success.

"This core is together. ... We can still do more," the captain said.

Tampa Bay has played 71 playoff games over the past 23 months - nearly the equivalent of an entire regular season, and the most ever by a team over a span of three postseasons.

BriseBois and Stamkos said it's difficult to gauge whether playing so much postseason hockey in such a short period of time impacted the Lightning's chances for a threepeat.

Nor do they perceive the experience as a potential hindrance moving forward.

"It been a long grueling last three years, and now we've got another short offseason," Stamkos said. "But I'm confident this group can take some time here, recharge and then get back to work."

Meanwhile, the Lightning revealed Point, who missed 14 of Tampa Bay's last 16 games due to what had been described as a lower body injury, was dealing with a torn right quadriceps muscle that should heal by the start of training camp this fall.

Point, Tampa Bay's leading goal scorer the previous two playoff runs, was having another stellar postseason when he was injured during Game 7 of the Lightning's first-round series win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He sat out the next two rounds, returned to play Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, then missed the final four.

Kucherov, Anthony Cirelli, Corey Perry, Brandon Hagel and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare were among the others who played through significant injuries that likely would have kept them out of the lineup during the regular season.

Minutes after Colorado's Cup-clinching victory, Lightning coach Jon Cooper saluted the team's toughness and said he'll always have a special regard for what this season's group accomplished in the face of adversity.

"You remember the teams you win with. Regardless of the league you're coaching in, you always remember those teams," Cooper said.

"You don't remember as much the ones you don't win with, but I will always remember this team," Cooper added. "For what they endured, what they went through, to get to this point, you have to marvel at them. ... And it was different than the other ones. It was just different."

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Updated June 28, 2022

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