CHICAGO – Tampa Bay Lightning 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 Monday night ended the Stanley Cup Final. For too much of the closest Final ever played, it just couldn’t get it — but the young, hungry Lightning is 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 only 10 goals in the six-game Final, including two during that three-game skid.
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.