CHICAGO -- The mantle of leadership can be a heavy burden to bear. On Monday it was crushing Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos under its weight.
Stamkos had suffered through losing the most important game of his life, a 2-0 defeat to the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final that ended the Lightning's season two wins short of its ultimate goal. He sat almost motionless in his stall in the visiting dressing room at United Center trying to process his shattered dream as the championship party raged yards away out on the ice, the opponents he battled across 360 minutes of mostly one-goal hockey taking their turns skating with the famous trophy.
He had managed enough energy to take off his skates, but little more. Neither the energy nor the inclination to look anywhere but straight ahead was present as he tried to explain what went wrong.
"It's so tough right now," he said. "We had a chance to win the Cup. We felt like it was a pretty evenly matched series and it could have gone either way. It's tough to look back and see the emotions of winning the Eastern Conference [Final] against the New York Rangers and then come here and see the emotions of the complete opposite.
"You're trying to accomplish your childhood dream and watching someone else win it instead of your group … I mean, it is so hard to get here. I can't express how frustrating it is not to get the job done."
Stamkos couldn't, or wouldn't, escape the feeling he had failed the men he was chosen to lead. The Lightning scored 10 goals in the six games but two in the final three, which led to the only three-game losing streak of the season for the Lightning.
Stamkos scored 43 goals during the regular season and had seven in the postseason, but none after Game 5 of the series against the Rangers.
"I obviously feel like I didn't produce here," he said. "I don't know what could have happened if I get a few in this series, so it is really tough to think of any positives right now. Words can't even describe how hard it is to get to this stage. You need a great team, you need to gel at the right time, you need luck, you need great goaltending, you need timely goals."
Stamkos' job is to provide timely goals. But they wouldn't come, especially in the final two games.
Late in Game 5 he fired at an open net believing he had tied the game, but Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook got the heel of his stick on the puck and it skittered tantalizingly wide. In the first period Monday, Stamkos came barreling down the right wing and fired a shot full of promise only to see it hit flush off the crossbar. With the search for the all-important first goal of the game still raging in the second period, Stamkos found himself on a breakaway but could not elevate a shot with goalie Corey Crawford at his mercy. The rebound attempt after Crawford's initial pad save pinged off the post.
"I felt sick for him," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "Early in the game he was feeling it. You could see, he had his legs moving. When he rang that one off the crossbar I just felt for him. That's just kind of how his series went. Wasn't for lack of effort. The kid was trying.
"You've got to feel for him because I know he's going to put a bunch of probably weight on his shoulders of why we didn't score. But Stammer [Stamkos] did an unreal job for us. Nobody scored. It wasn't just Stammer."
Despite the depths of his disappointment, Stamkos waited for his teammates to drag their battered, and in some cases broken, bodies off the ice for a final time. There was a pat here, a shoulder tap there. Words were exchanged but not always absorbed by the players for whom they were intended as they trudged down the hall to the dressing room.
"It's more to embrace the guys for everything you sacrificed to get here, to hopefully one day get another chance at this," Stamkos said. "The reality is, who knows if that is ever going to happen. We really felt like we had a chance right now. Especially for me to be able to get the job done these last couple of games; it's something you will remember for a long time."
The scenes in the dressing room also will stay with him for a long time.
Directly across from him, defenseman Anton Stralman tried to explain the pain of losing in the Stanley Cup Final for a second straight year. Across the hallway from Stralman, goalie Ben Bishop tried to talk about his groin injury as the celebratory music made the process difficult.
"You think about how long the season has been, how close we were," Bishop said. "It feels like every game of the series could have gone one way or another. It's just a terrible feeling. I don't know to describe it. Listening to [the celebration], it just makes you sick."
A few stalls to the right of Stamkos, rookie Jonathan Drouin sat, his bowed head covered with a towel. He never raised it while Stamkos talked to reporters or when teammate J.T. Brown passed a bit later to give him a reassuring squeeze of the shoulder.
"It hits you when you come in this room and you look around and you see the guys and how hard everyone has worked and you just get a rush of emotions and you realize how tough it is to get here and you never know you are going to get this chance again," Stamkos said.
"It's a pretty lonely feeling. You get that sick feeling in your stomach knowing how hard you worked to get here and see it all go away."