Devastated Lightning can only wonder about what could have been

CHICAGO -- It was the last duty as Tampa Bay Lightning captain in these Stanley Cup finals Steven Stamkos performed before the reality of the situation crushed him.

He respectfully went through the handshake line, shaking the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks who beat his team 2-0 in Game 6 to officially end Tampa’s playoff run. Then, as the rest of his Lightning teammates quickly exited to the dressing room, he stood on the Tampa Bay bench by the tunnel.

One by one, as teammates came off the United Center ice one final time, he patted them on the back. Some got a pat on the side of the head. There was a quick hug for veteran defenseman Anton Stralman and another for goalie Ben Bishop. When his last teammate was off the ice, leaving the Blackhawks to celebrate on their own, Stamkos turned and walked down the tunnel.

When he entered a devastated Lightning dressing room, it hit him.

It was over.

And it hurt like hell.

His Lightning played 26 games this postseason, 26 gut-wrenching, grueling games that resulted in nothing more than heartbreak. At least, that’s how it felt at this moment, the experience gained for potential playoff runs a concept that was impossible to grasp in the present.

“That’s a lot of hockey. It almost feels like it’s for nothing. I know it’s not,” Stamkos said, a blue Lightning hat pulled tight over his reddened eyes. “That’s what it feels like. Some people didn’t make the playoffs, they’re enjoying their offseason. You’re sacrificing, playing through so many different things, guys on the team sacrificing.”

And somebody else gets to lift the Stanley Cup.

“I can’t express how frustrating it is not to get the job done,” Stamkos said.

He didn’t have to. A look around the room expressed it better than anything he could articulate.

Directly ahead of him, sitting side by side, were the pillars of the Lightning's defense. Victor Hedman, the breakout defensive star of this postseason, looking like something less than a 7-foot giant for the first time this spring. Shoulders slumped, rings under the eyes.

Gary Bettman’s voice echoes outside the room. The NHL commissioner names a Conn Smythe Trophy winner and it likely would have been Hedman if the Lightning had found a way to send this series back to Tampa and win in Game 7.

Instead, it was Duncan Keith.

“Just empty right now,” Hedman said. “That’s how it is.”

Stralman, sitting next to him, stares straight ahead. The 28-year-old defenseman finally found a team that appreciates his subtle game. With Hedman, he paired up to form a duo that effectively shut down the Blackhawks' biggest stars in this series when they were on the ice against them.

The only problem was, they couldn’t always be on the ice.

Queen’s “We are the Champions” plays out on the ice and torturously drifts into the Lightning's dressing room.

Jonathan Drouin cries in a stall, by himself along a far wall. You can’t tell at first because there’s a towel draped over his head. When he peels it off, wiping his face, his eyes give it away.

His skates remain on, almost as if taking them off is a finality he can’t handle.

J.T. Brown walks by, pauses a moment and pats him on the back.

Drouin is 20 years old. He plays on a great young team. Surely, he’ll get another crack at it, but then again, he might not.

Brenden Morrow wasn’t much older than Drouin is now when his Dallas Stars advanced to the finals before losing to the New Jersey Devils in 2000.

It took 15 years to come that close again. In Morrow’s career he has played 1,000 regular-season and playoff games, and the way he plays, these are hard, physical miles.

“I don’t remember 15 years ago. Then, I was just young and dumb and thought it was going to happen every time,” Morrow said, showered and dressed to leave in a navy suit. “Now, I’m not sure if this is it or I’ll get another opportunity at it.”

Nobody knows. That’s what makes coming so close but losing so devastating. If there ever was a team primed to go on a long string of playoff runs, it’s this Lightning team.

Stamkos is still just 25 years old. Hedman is just 24. Bishop proved himself as a playoff performer in goal and his backup, Andrei Vasilevskiy, showed glimpses in relief why the organization sees him as a future No. 1. Not one player on the famed "Triplets" line is older than 24 years old.

Even head coach Jon Cooper will be better next season and the season after. After all, it has barely been two years since he was hired away from the American Hockey League.

That knowledge doesn’t take away the sting, especially for the captain Stamkos, who had a breakaway in Game 6 that will haunt him until he raises the Stanley Cup on his own. He also hit a post, a ringing that will echo for a long time. The breaks that were going his way in the Eastern Conference finals stopped falling in his favor and he finished the Stanley Cup finals without a single goal.

“I feel like I didn’t produce here,” Stamkos said. “Who knows what could have happened if I get a few in this series? It’s really hard to think of any positives right now.”

Said Cooper of his captain: “You’ve got to feel for him because I know he’s going to put a bunch of weight on his shoulders of why we didn’t score. But Stammer did an unreal job for us. Nobody scored.”

In the end, that’s what did the Lightning in. The explosive team that led the NHL in goals per game during the regular season with 3.16, was shut out in the game it needed to win to stay alive. The Lightning scored just twice in the final three games of the Stanley Cup finals.

The Blackhawks shut down the Lightning as the Stanley Cup closed in. That’s what the great teams do, and this group in Chicago is down the path to be one of the all-timer greats.

There’s a lesson for the Lightning to learn here. Someday the pain they were feeling in this moment will come with a payoff, the experience that is necessary to win one on their own.

But today, it was 26 games that came without a reward for the Lighting. At least, not this season.