June 17, 2015

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) The Tampa Bay Lightning came within two victories of hoisting the Stanley Cup during an impressive playoff run that's heightened expectations for one of the NHL's youngest teams.

The challenge now not only is to get back to the playoffs, but return to the championship round - and win.

''You get a taste of it and that's where you want to be,'' veteran winger Ryan Callahan said Wednesday, when players cleared out their lockers at Amalie Arena for what figures to be a short, but important offseason.

General manager Steve Yzerman spent last summer tinkering with a roster that was swept in the first round of the playoffs. He traded for defenseman Jason Garrison and signed defenseman Anton Stralman, center Brian Boyle and winger Brendan Morrow as free agents to bolster a mostly young, though talented group led by Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and goaltender Ben Bishop.

Yzerman's top priority this summer is signing Stamkos, one of the league's most prolific scorers, to a long-term contract extension.

The three-time All-Star has one year remaining on a $37.5 million deal that pays him $7.5 million next season. The Lightning can sign him to an extension as early as July 1.

''It's not up to me right now,'' Stamkos said, reiterating he's happy playing in Tampa and already under contract for next season. ''That stuff will take care of itself.''

Stamkos scored 43 goals during the regular season, helping the Lightning win a franchise-best 50 games. Bishop set personal and club record for a goalie with 40 victories, and the emergence of the ''Triplets'' line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov helped transform Tampa Bay into the league's highest-scoring team.

Ultimately, though, it was coach Jon Cooper's insistence that the team had to focus more on keeping the puck out of its own net that fueled the run to the Stanley Cup Final, won by the Chicago Blackhawks in six games.

The Lightning led the best-of-seven series 2-1 before dropping Games 4, 5 and 6 for their only three-game losing streak of the season.

''You never want to get beat, but we got beat by a team that was worthy,'' Cooper said of the Blackhawks, who's won three of the past six Stanley Cup titles.

''You get this close and there's just an empty feeling in the end,'' Cooper added. ''But if there's anything you want to take of it is now you know what it takes to get there - that complete sacrifice as an individual and as a team.''

With much of the roster expected to remain intact, the Lightning likely will be one of the preseason favorites to reach the Stanley Cup Final again next year.

But Cooper and his players understand a promising future doesn't guarantee anything.

''The tough part is you just never know if you're going to get back,'' Cooper said.

''It's going to be tougher next year,'' Stamkos agreed. ''We have to realize that.''

Tampa Bay's captain shrugged off a question about whether injuries contributed to him struggling offensively during long stretches of the playoffs.

Stamkos began the postseason run by going eight games without scoring. He finished with another eight-game drought that made him a target for criticism during the Stanley Cup Final.

Yzerman, however, did not take issue with his star's performance.

The GM called the two-time Maurice Richard Trophy winner a ''tremendous leader'' and an unselfish player who did other things to help the Lightning be successful.

''He did everything we asked of him,'' Yzerman added. ''He put the team ahead of himself.''

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