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Lightning fall short after battling through adversity

Tampa Bay unable to make second straight Stanley Cup Final with slew of injuries

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH -- In the aftermath of the Tampa Bay Lightning's 2-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Thursday, Lightning forward Brian Boyle was asked what the team had learned about themselves during this playoff run.

"I don't think anything we didn't already know," Boyle said.

The Lightning had overcome so much to get to this point, but came up a win short of reaching the Stanley Cup Final.

 They played without Steven Stamkos for the entire Stanley Cup Playoffs before their captain returned for Game 7. They were without top pair defenseman Anton Stralman for their series wins over the Detroit Red Wings and New York Islanders in the first two rounds before getting him back for Game 2 against the Penguins.

Video: TBL@PIT, Gm7: Vasilevskiy gobbles up Cullen's wrister

That was after they lost Ben Bishop to what he called a "lower-leg" injury in the first period of Game 1 of the conference final.

Still, the Lightning soldiered on with 21-year-old backup Andrei Vasilevskiy taking over in net and pushed the powerful Penguins to the limit.

"This is a great group to be a part of," Boyle said. "We're all very fortunate to be a part of this group. That was something, that next-guy-up mentality we've had all year long that's carried over. The depth of the organization, the quality of players we have in the room, it's a lot of fun to be a part of and it makes something like this a little bit harder to swallow."

The Lightning could not question that they had given their all in the series. They had to acknowledge that they ran into a team that was deeper, faster and had just eliminated the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in the second round.

Video: TBL@PIT, Gm7: Vasilevskiy denies Rust's wraparound

"We lost to a really good team," Stralman said. "We just have to get through that. They played better than us, I think, over the whole series and tonight."

The Penguins pressured the Lightning into turnovers all over the ice and burned them on the counterattack with their speed. The Penguins outshot the Lightning 39-17 in Game 7 and 269-178 for the series.

On a team filled with stars such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang, rookie right wing Bryan Rust was the Game 7 hero, scoring both goals for the Penguins.

"They're fast, so if we're playing the game a little too slow and not executing, it is hard when they're playing D fast and they're right on you," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "When we were in those situations where we probably should have shot, we passed, and we passed when we probably should have shot. We kind of got caught in between on a lot of occasions. They play D well, they play hard, and the other thing is they block a lot of shots, and that was evident this whole series. The amount of shot blocks were just incredible, just couldn't get them through."

Video: TBL@PIT, Gm7: Vasilevskiy and Hedman keep puck out

Although Vasilevskiy mishandled the puck trying to cover it before Rust scored the winning goal, he was the main reason the Lightning were tied 1-1 after a second period in which they were outshot 21-5.

"Let's be honest," Cooper said. "I don't think we're where we are in this series if it wasn't for him."

As much as the Penguins dominated, the Lightning were still within one goal of tying the game in the third period, but had trouble getting pucks through to rookie goaltender Matt Murray. The Penguins had seven of their 17 shot blocks in the third period.

"For some reason, we were unable to get it going and really play to our highest level," Stralman said. "Stuff like that really eats you up going deep in a series. It's always tough to end like this. You go in every year thinking, 'This is it. This time we're going to go all the way.' We just couldn't pull through. We played a really good team. It's tough, but, at the same time, I'm really proud of all the guys and the way we played this year."

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