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Dallas Stars feel sting of falling just short of Stanley Cup

Stars captain Jamie Benn sat in silence after Dallas' 2-0 Game 6 loss on Monday night, which handed the Tampa Bay Lightning the Stanley Cup and ended his team's season.

A reporter asked Benn what this group of teammates meant to him. He couldn't find the words to respond. Another reporter asked him about the Stars' improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final over the course of two months, playing inside an empty arena and living in the NHL's playoff bubble in Edmonton, Alberta. Again, Benn was silent, for 16 seconds, before letting out a deep sigh and speaking.

"It was a good run. It's tough. You're two games away from the Stanley Cup," he said before leaving the news conference.

Like their captain, the Stars were emotionally numb after losing Game 6. The No. 3 seeds in the Western Conference when the regular season was paused because of COVID-19, they entered the NHL's bubble with a renewed focus to challenge for a championship. Their run to the Final saw them beat the Calgary Flames in six games, outlast the Colorado Avalanche in seven and shock the Vegas Golden Knights in five in the Western Conference finals.

Their resilient run saw them avoid elimination with a double-overtime Game 5 win over the Lightning, improving to 6-1 in extra time in the postseason. But the Lightning smothered them in Game 6, limiting them to eight shots on goal in the first two periods.

"I know our players weren't very good for 40 minutes," coach Rick Bowness said. "I get that. They didn't let us get going. But I'm proud of our players. They left everything on the ice. No one expected us to get here, but we believed in ourselves."

They believed right to the end, which is why they said the loss devastated them.

"There are not feelings right now," said goalie Anton Khudobin, a surprise playoff hero after starter Ben Bishop was injured. "We stuck together. We stuck to each other. But right now, there is nothing."

Defenseman John Klingberg said the Stars are his "second family," which made the loss hurt all the more.

"We're brothers," he said. "This one stings a lot. It hurts. It hurts a lot. This is the dream, to play on the biggest stage of the world, and you end up losing."

The Stars were hobbled by injuries in the final few games of the series. In addition to Bishop, the team was missing key defensive forward Radek Faksa, Roope Hintz, Blake Comeau and defenseman Stephen Johns.

Dallas forward Tyler Seguin said he'd have to literally wait in line to get to the trainers' room because so many of his teammates were hurting. It's all part of the postseason experience.

"It's fun being on this stage. A lot of guys in this business don't have the opportunity to feel this pressure, and we had a lot of fun with it," Seguin said. "It was great, but other than that there was nothing really positive you can take from the bubble life. It definitely sucked and we're all looking forward to seeing family and friends now."

Bowness famously lamented life in the bubble earlier in the playoffs, telling reporters that "no one knows how tough it is" to be restricted to the NHL's secure zone.

"It's been difficult at times. As we went along, all the tough times living life in a bubble, you kind of move along from it and you get ready for the next series. Fortunately, we kept winning. That helped," he said. "This is a very difficult situation to live in for nine weeks. It's Groundhog Day. So you look so much forward to the excitement of the games.

"When you're competing for the Stanley Cup, it doesn't matter where you are. It doesn't matter the conditions. It's been well worth it to have a chance to win the Stanley Cup."

It was a bittersweet moment for some of the Stars as they congratulated the Lightning.

Khudobin, 34, had a short conversation with Russian countryman Andrei Vasilevskiy, 26, who won his first Stanley Cup.

"You can chirp each other," Khudobin said. "You can say something in your native language. You're going to war against each other. But as soon as everything is finished, you're just a normal human being. So I congratulated him. I'm happy for him. It's really hard to win the Cup. They finally got it."

Bowness, who at 65 years old is the NHL's oldest head coach, had been an assistant for the Lightning for roughly five years, including for their 2015 Stanley Cup Final loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. He congratulated the Tampa Bay players in the postgame handshake line.

"It's hard to describe [the feeling]. You only get so many shots at winning the Stanley Cup, so you're dealing with the emotions of that," he said.

Bowness is actually the interim coach for the Stars, having taken over for the fired Jim Montgomery in December. Dallas management has said he's welcome to return next season if Bowness decides he'd like to continue as coach.

He said that while in the NHL playoff bubble he learned he still has the passion to do it.

"I love the game. I love coaching. What did I learn? That I still have the passion to compete," he said. "I still have the passion to coach. I know I'm getting up there. I know there's more behind me than ahead of me. But I still have the passion.

"I always tell my family that the day I wake up and I don't want to go to the rink, then I know the passion's gone. We're not there yet."