The Tampa Bay Lightning barely missed the playoffs. In some ways, that makes it more difficult.
The Lightning wrapped up their regular season Sunday evening, beating the Buffalo Sabres 4-2. That left the team with 94 points, one behind both Toronto and Boston.
Brayden Point scored two goals in the finale. Defensemen Victor Hedman and Braydon Coburn also scored for Tampa Bay.
“It’s hard to digest right now because it’s been less than 24 hours since we’ve known that we weren’t going to play after tonight,” Cooper said. “All I can say is there was a time in early February where we were not relevant at all. This team found a way to make themselves relevant through game 81.
“Just to watch the crowd support at a 5:00 game on a Sunday afternoon on a beautiful day while The Masters is going on. The place is jam packed and nobody left and everybody stayed till the very end.
“There’s a love affair between the team and our fans. I was just proud to be standing there behind the bench, The players, they made the team relevant during the last two and a half months of the season, but, in saying that, come five months from now everybody’s 0-0-0. But, there’s a lot of fight in that group and you’ve got to say a lot of that group will be back here next year and it’s great to be a part of that.”
The Lightning finished their last 30 games at 20-6-4, but 94 points weren’t enough to get into the post-season. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was 6-1-1 over his last eight starts.
Cooper was pleased with the effort of Point, who finished with 18 goals.
“That kid’s a hockey player,” Cooper said. “It’s hard to define everything good that happens to players. It’s happening to him because of his commitment to be better. I thought it was unbelievably fitting the way the winning goal goes in because the kid that just worked the hardest got awarded with a fluky one because he deserved that. I’m just so impressed that somebody that young and a little bit undersized can come in and – a lot of guys put the team on their back these last few months. But his growth has been phenomenal.
“He’s just a committed kid. (There are) not enough guys like him. I’ll just tell you that.”