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CHICAGO – Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper looked around his dressing room at his exhausted Lightning while the Chicago Blackhawks' Stanley Cup celebration pulsated through the walls.
Cooper saw anguish and disappointment on his players' faces. He also saw the roots of a valuable experience.
The Lightning just needed one bounce, one break, one lucky deflection to keep pace with the Blackhawks, whose 2-0 victory on Monday night ended the Stanley Cup Final. For too much of the closest Final ever played, they just couldn't get it — but the young, hungry Lightning are determined to get back to try again.
"We've got a group of young men in there, but they're kids at heart, and they're crushed," Cooper said. "It was really hard to look at them and see how crushed they truly are. ... This is going to leave a scar, there's no doubt."
After a record-tying 26 games, the Lightning's epic playoff run ended with a thud at the United Center. After escaping every jam and meeting every challenge in the first three rounds, Tampa Bay ended the series on the first three-game losing streak of its standout season, dropping those three games by a combined four goals.
The final shutout underlined the only real problem for Tampa Bay in a marvelous postseason: The NHL's highest-scoring team in the regular season managed just 10 goals in the six-game Final, including two during that three-game skid.
"I'm proud of every effort we gave throughout this season," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "A lot of games we played. We played a tough series. Obviously we didn't score enough goals the last three games to give us a good enough chance."
The Lightning matched three other teams for the longest playoff run in NHL history. By the final periods, they were understandably exhausted — and yet they still pushed the champion Blackhawks to the limit.
The Lightning's frustration was epitomized in captain Steven Stamkos, who couldn't score a goal in the Final despite coming agonizingly close in Game 6.
Stamkos hit the crossbar in the first period, missing a goal by perhaps an inch after the puck pinged downward, but he had his most painful moment early in the second period when a mix-up left him with a clean breakaway on Crawford. Stamkos slowed to a stop and got Crawford down to the ice, but couldn't flip a shot over his outstretched pad, perhaps overthinking a goal-scorer's dream moment.
"It's a pretty lonely feeling," Stamkos said while sitting disconsolately at his dressing room stall.
While the Blackhawks celebrated behind their net, the Lightning slumped on the bench and stretched disconsolately against their sticks. After the postgame handshake line, the Lightning went reluctantly to the dressing room, with Stamkos hugging his teammates on the way out.
Tampa Bay had only one Stanley Cup winner on its roster against the champion-studded Blackhawks, yet the young Lighting held their own.
They got remarkable performances from Ben Bishop, who stopped 30 shots on balky legs in Game 6 after getting hurt back a week ago, and Nikita Kucherov, who returned from an apparently serious injury to play in Game 6.
Back home at Amalie Arena, Lightning fans packed the building to capacity for a game-watching party, roaring with cheers comparable to game nights. Tampa has cemented its reputation as a model Sun Belt hockey market with its latest playoff run as the culmination of a revitalization effort under owner Jeff Vinik.