PITTSBURGH -- The emotions were still too raw for Steven Stamkos to ponder what comes next for him.
The Tampa Bay Lightning captain had worked so hard and endured so much to get back in time to play in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Thursday, and there was a lot for him to digest after the season-ending 2-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. A question about whether he had considered that this might have been his final game as a member of the Lightning produced a curt reply.
"No," Stamkos said.
Stamkos' future with the Lightning appears murky at best; his contract is set to expire and unrestricted free agency awaits him on July 1. But it was understandable that the future was the furthest thing from his mind Thursday.
Playing in his first game in eight weeks after recovering from surgery to clear a blood clot near his right collarbone, Stamkos had hoped to spark the Lightning past the Penguins and to their second trip in as many years to the Stanley Cup Final.
Video: TBL@PIT, Gm7: Murray denies Stamkos' slap shot
"All the adversity that we overcame as a group, I couldn't be more proud of the guys with how far we came with the injuries that we had," a teary-eyed Stamkos said. "I feel horrible for the guys that battled every night. I was able to play one game, but those guys had a [heck] of a postseason. It was just an honor to be on the ice with those guys tonight. Too bad the result wasn't better."
Stamkos had played it coy following the morning skate, claiming his status was unchanged. But he said following the game that he had "a good feeling" after the Lightning lost 5-2 in Game 6 on Tuesday that he'd have a chance to play in Game 7.
"I just tried to give myself a chance to be ready if needed, if called upon, and tonight was the night," he said. "It didn't end up working out. It's tough right now. It's a tough one to swallow, but when it's all said and done, these guys can look themselves in the mirror because they battled and I don't think a lot of people thought we'd get this far."
Stamkos was grateful that the Lightning were able to make it this far without him and give him one more chance to play this season. He had last played on March 31 against the Nashville Predators.
Two days later, he was diagnosed with the blood clot. After he had vascular surgery on April 4, the diagnosis was that he'd need one to three months to recover.
By the end of April, he was skating with the team. However, he was in what he called a "holding pattern" because he needed to take blood thinners to prevent further clotting, and it was potentially unsafe for him to play while on them.
Eventually, he got the green light from the Lightning medical staff, and that left it up to him to decide when he felt comfortable playing again.
"In order to come back and play you have to be past that not only physically but mentally, and I was past that, so I didn't feel any tentativeness or anything like that," he said.
Waiting to take the ice for pregame warmups, Stamkos felt a mixture of nerves and excitement as he headed down the tunnel from Consol Energy Center's visiting locker room.
"You live for this," he said. "The crowd's going nuts. It's a Game 7 to get to the Stanley Cup Final, so I knew I wanted to be part of that."
The Lightning wanted him to be part of it as well.
"He's our leader and we love him," forward Brian Boyle said. "We were jacked up for him that he could play, and we were happy because of the player that he is. I give him a lot of credit. That's a tough thing to jump into. He gave us a huge lift. He almost got one in the second."
With the Lightning trailing 2-1 and 3:49 remaining in the second period, Alex Killorn fed Stamkos with a long pass to send him in alone in the right wing. Stamkos didn't have enough speed to get to the net uncontested, so wound up and fired a slap shot from the circle. The puck powered through an opening between Matt Murray's right arm and his body, but the rookie goaltender got enough of it to have it trickle wide of the left post.
"I thought I beat him," Stamkos said. "It just went through him and out the other side, so it was close."
That was Stamkos' best scoring chance in a game in which the Lightning didn't get many. He finished with two shots on goal in 11:55 of ice time; his shifts were kept short as coach Jon Cooper tried to ease him back in.
"It was fun to get to see No. 91 out there playing again," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "I'm happy for him he was able to come back. I feel really bad we couldn't pull through for him and get the win for him."
That the Penguins were the better team was proven out in Game 7. The final score did not exemplify their dominance. They outshot the Lightning 39-17 and repeatedly pressured Tampa Bay into turnovers and poor decisions with their speed and pressure.
Maybe the outcome would have been different if the Lightning had a healthy Stamkos from the start of the series, but it was not meant to be.
"It stings right now, obviously, this close to getting back to something we were at last year and we had a good chance to get to this year," Stamkos said. "You've got to give them some credit. They played a [heck] of a game."