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 TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -Another early exit from the playoffs leaves the Tampa Bay Lightning with difficult questions to answer between now and next season.
Among the most pressing:
-Can the team continue to sink roughly 40 percent of its payroll into the Big Three - Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards?
-What becomes of goalie Marc Denis, last year's big offseason acquisition who was so inconsistent that he not only lost his starting job but didn't even dress for any games during the team's first-round loss to the New Jersey Devils?
-With the NHL's salary cap likely to rise this summer, will general manager Jay Feaster spend more - or less - on players in light of a team official saying last week that the club probably would have to advance through two rounds of the playoffs to reduce this year's deficit to an ``acceptable'' $5 million?
No one was in a hurry to address these issues after the Devils eliminated the Lightning from the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in six games.
``We lost in the first round, but it's so funny how it's just a fine line,'' Lecavalier said Monday, noting that the best-of-seven matchup shifted dramatically when New Jersey won Game 4 in overtime to even the series.
``If we would have won that overtime game, we would have been up 3-1. It's a totally different series then,'' Lecavalier added. ``I really believe we played great hockey. Just the way we played as a group, everybody, the whole team, it was great.''
Lecavalier, St. Louis and Richards played like stars and goalie Johan Holmqvist, who had only appeared in four NHL games before this season, performed well enough to give the Lightning a chance.
What never materialized, though, was help from a supporting cast that coach John Tortorella was counting on to take some of the pressure off the Big Three, who combined to score 11 of the team's 14 goals in the series.
``We were able to generate a lot of offense against a pretty good defensive team,'' St. Louis said. ``But we came up short, and we're going to remember this feeling.''
With Lecavalier leading the way with a franchise-record and NHL-leading 52 goals, Tampa Bay was the only team in the league with a pair of 100-point scorers. Still, a lack of balanced scoring made it difficult to win when he and St. Louis, who also reached 100 points, didn't have big games.
The Lightning were 0-31-2, including playoffs, when scoring two goals or less. They were 46-6-3 when scoring three or more.
Part of that was goaltending. Denis struggled after being acquired in a trade and receiving a three-year, $8.6 million contract. Holmqvist played better, but the Lightning still have to decide if he's the answer.
Richards, the second-highest paid player in the league at $7.8 million, hopes Feaster will keep the Big Three together and continue to build around the nucleus remaining from the club's 2004 Stanley Cup championship.
``It's very hard to make the playoffs,'' Richards said. ``It's a fine line between us beating Jersey in the series. It's an overtime game where we go up three games to one and it goes the other way.
``The core group is still pretty young. I'm not an owner or a GM, but we have a good core group. You have to judge on results, but you have to realize it's a fine line. ... You can't lose the fact how hard it is.''
St. Louis agreed.
``For me, it would be foolish to spend less. If anything, I'd spent more because you have a lot of key elements to a championship team here,'' he said. ``If you add a player here and there, we could be right there. If they go the other way, what kind of message does that send?''

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