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Lightning look ahead after painful loss in Cup Final

by Corey Long

TAMPA -- The Tampa Bay Lightning's season ended with a 2-0 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. But it was a 2-1, Game 1 loss, when the Lightning couldn't hold the lead late in the third period, that bothers them the most.

"I keep going back to the first game and how we lost that lead late," defenseman Anton Stralman said Wednesday, when the Lightning cleaned out their lockers at Amalie Arena. "We played a good game and then we kind of sat back and let them take over. That one stunned us."

The Game 1 loss, which the Lightning led 1-0 with less than seven minutes left before the Blackhawks scored twice in a span of 1:58, was also a point of frustration for forward Brian Boyle at the time. But he said Wednesday the Lightning shouldn't have any regrets about their effort in the Cup Final.

"We did everything we could, I think," Boyle said. "Everybody gave it everything they had and probably a little bit more, honestly. I think some guys in here found out a little something about themselves playing through stuff. Being a part of that, you can't ask for anything more. We achieved a lot and it had a really difficult ending. It's going to stick with us for the rest of our lives."

Boyle, who was with the New York Rangers last year when they lost the Final to the Los Angeles Kings, said the drive to win the Cup is stronger than ever after a series where neither team led by more than one goal until the final 5:14 of Game 6.

"It's a couple hundred games over two years for me, but your body can handle a lot," Boyle said. "We sacrificed a lot. The Blackhawks are a great team, I have a lot of respect for them and what they have accomplished. They had nice things to say about us. We had some breaks to go out to get to the Final. We'll work hard to make that happen again next season. It's a tough thing to do."

Many players played through injuries. Captain Steven Stamkos, who did not score in the Cup Final, wouldn't disclose what his ailments were. But forward Tyler Johnson wore a black brace on his hand after fracturing his wrist in Game 1. The injury prevented Johnson from taking faceoffs for the rest of the series after being one of the Lightning regulars on draws for much of the season.

Johnson said he and his teammates will use the experiences of the postseason to continue to grow.

"You have to build off everything," he said. "Last year we lost to [the Montreal Canadiens] in the first round and we built off that. We have to build off this playoffs and the tough battles we had."

Johnson, 24, is part of a young core who should keep the Lightning in contention during the next few seasons. His "Triplets" linemates, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat are 22 and 24, respectively. Though Stamkos is one of the longest-tenured players on the team, he's 25. Defenseman Victor Hedman is 24.

Stamkos said he expects his teammates will never forget what they went through to reach the Cup Final, and they need to use the lessons they learned to take another step forward.

"It's a young core, and that's the exciting part," Stamkos said. "We felt like we had a great chance, and you saw how tight the games were, but there's still work to be done. Experience was a word that was used before the series a lot in regards to Chicago. I guess we can say we have [experience] now that we've been here. All the things you talk about that you need to do during a playoff run, we did them. It [stinks] that we didn't win but we learned a lot."

Coach Jon Cooper said he expects the Lightning will have more appreciation for their playoff run as the offseason progresses, but on Wednesday the loss to the Blackhawks was fresh in their minds.

"Ultimately they found ways to win the games that were in the balance," Cooper said. "They got the late goals, they won the 2-1 games. We couldn't find ways to win those games. In Game 5, their goalie gives one away, we lose [Kucherov], our goalie gives one away and it ends up in the net. There's most definitely going to be a sting to get this close. But I hope we take away the sacrifices we made as individuals and as a team to get this far."

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