BOSTON -- Martin St. Louis labored while taking off his equipment for the final time in the 2010-11 season.
Part exhaustion, part dejection, part reflection -- St. Louis undressed a bit and then slumped back into a chair next to his stall in the visitors dressing room at TD Garden on Friday night before beginning again to remove tape and gear.
After he was done, St. Louis was on his way out of the room when Dwayne Roloson was coming in to speak with the media. They met near a stack of sweaty white sweaters that would soon be washed for the final time, and stopped for a hearty embrace.
The two veterans had just helped the Tampa Bay Lightning rise from three straight last-place finishes in the Southeast Division to within one victory of playing in the Stanley Cup Final. It was a moment that encapsulated both how far this patchwork collection of players had come in such a short time -- and the uncertainty the organization faces in the coming weeks and months.
"It is how well we came together as a team, how we were willing to battle for each other -- whatever it took to win hockey games," Roloson said. "Every guy was a leader in this locker room, from the youngest guys that hadn't played a lot of games to the veterans who are the leaders on this team. Everyone chipped in and played a part.
"It is hard to explain, but teams that I've played on that were good -- Buffalo and Minnesota and Edmonton -- that went to the Final or semifinals, it was how close the team is. This team is so close it was unbelievable."
Tampa Bay's season began with a new general manager, a new coaching staff and a turned-over roster as the organization tried to rebound from a tumultuous couple of seasons with the previous regime.
The first-time general manager, Steve Yzerman, made some deft moves, surrounding a talented core with quality role players. The first-time NHL coach, Guy Boucher, implemented a unique system and new practice policies, and the players fell in line quickly.
Tampa Bay surged to the top of the Southeast Division in the first half of the season, and though the Lightning couldn't hold off Washington, they finished the regular season as the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference – earning their first trip to the postseason since 2007.
It shouldn't have been a surprise that the Lightning defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins based on the regular season, but comparing where the two franchises were in the recent past, it was. It shouldn't have been a surprise that they knocked off the Capitals, considering how close the two teams were in the standings, but the Lightning swept the series, emphatically pushing aside the club that had bullied fellow Southeast teams in recent seasons.
The postseason run for Tampa Bay ended one win -- one goal, really -- shy of reaching magical proportions. Boston emerged victorious in a series that was every bit as close as the final goal tally -- 21 for each side -- indicated. The Bruins captured Game 7, a contest that featured at times both breathtaking pace and incredible defensive play, with a third-period goal and will play the Vancouver Canucks in the Cup Final.
"As you get older, they hurt more because you know how hard it is to get here," said St. Louis, who turns 36 next month. "I'm proud of what we've done in a short period of time. We got to within one goal of the Stanley Cup Final. I'm proud to be [with the] Lightning. There was so much positive this year and just one little negative: a Game 7 that we lost."
Yzerman will have plenty of work to do if Tampa Bay is to be back among the top teams in the Eastern Conference next season. Eleven of the 24 players who appeared in a postseason game for the Lightning are free agents.
The most important among them is restricted free agent Steven Stamkos, a franchise player in every sense -- a guy who stood and answered questions from the media after Game 7 while blood dripped from his nose after taking a puck off his visor in the second period. Stamkos has scored 13 more goals than any other player in the NHL since the start of the 2009-10 season, and will likely earn a huge contract.
There are other critical decisions to be made as well. The top three goaltenders in the organization -- Roloson, Mike Smith and prospect Cedrick Desjardins -- are all unrestricted free agents. So too are top defenseman Eric Brewer, top-six forward Simon Gagne and playoff hero Sean Bergenheim. Teddy Purcell, who teammates have pegged as a future star, is also an RFA.
If this season was any indication, the key figures are in place. Yzerman, Boucher, Stamkos, St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier should make the Lightning a competitive club for the next several seasons. How Yzerman fills in the roster around his superstars will determine if the Lightning can take the next step.
There should be plenty of optimism to go along with a new logo and new blue sweaters when the Lightning take the ice at St. Pete Times Forum again at the start of the 2011-12 season.
"I think there's hope at all levels in the organization," Boucher said. "I think that's what's impressive. From the inside, I see what's going on. And starting from (owner) Mr. [Jeff] Vinik and Mr. [Steve] Yzerman and (CEO) Mr. Tod Leiweke, and everybody that it trickles down to, their attitude and their work ethic and everything they put into it and their experience, it's trickled down to the players and the staff and myself. And certainly we always want more. That was our motto all year long. The guys are so resilient.
"If people knew how banged up the guys are right now, it's incredible. We're talking about [Pavel] Kubina and [Sean] Bergenheim not playing, but there's guys playing in there, their bodies are just barely hanging on there. So from the inside, this was the end. I mean, there was nothing left. There was nothing left in the tank. And I think it just shows that everybody wants more, players and everybody else, and that's the path we're going to take, definitely."