TAMPA -- Steven Stamkos said he believed this was the year the Tampa Bay Lightning would win a Stanley Cup. But after losing Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final to the Washington Capitals at home on Wednesday, the disappointment will linger long into the offseason.
"I think it [will] probably take a little longer to sink in, but this was one of the tougher feelings and ends to the season based on the quality of players and people we had on the team," Stamkos, the Lightning captain, said Thursday. "Just the feeling that this is the year. I think when we beat Boston in five and you're like, 'Whoa, that's a really good hockey team' and you're coming in and you kind of felt 'OK, let's keep riding that momentum.'
"That's why it's the toughest trophy in sports to win. You can have a lot of things go right but you run into a very good team and you lose a Game 7, so it's very disappointing."
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The Lightning this season set their records with 54 wins and 113 points, each best in the Eastern Conference, but they struggled on defense and with their penalty kill even after general manager Steve Yzerman made an NHL Trade Deadline move to acquire defenseman Ryan McDonagh and forward J.T. Miller from the New York Rangers.
Yzerman said the Lightning will try to become a better defensive team.
"When I look at the stats in the regular season, I think we were 19th in goals against," Yzerman said. "Our penalty killing in the regular season wasn't good enough (76.1 percent). In the playoffs, it was roughly 75 percent. … Not quite good enough.
"So as a team we have to collectively improve defensively to be rock solid and to be able to be in these situations where we can shut a team out in Game 6 or 7. We're not quite there."
Yzerman said he doesn't expect to make a full roster overhaul in the offseason but things will change and it's up to him to make the right moves to improve. He will have to make decisions on restricted free agent forwards Adam Erne, Cedric Paquette and Miller, and goalie Louis Domingue. Defenseman Andrej Sustr is an unrestricted free agent and a likely candidate to leave, and forward Chris Kunitz will also be a free agent after his one-year contract expires.
"Personnel will change regardless, whether it's just evolution year to year," Yzerman said. "How much it changes depends on what options, what opportunities are out there. It's difficult to change significantly for us at this stage. It's a challenge. We need to improve.
"My job this summer is, how do I improve this team? Is that through free agency? Is that through trades? Is that hopefully our young guys coming in next year, whoever that may be, and improving us? Or is this group the best option we have? You kind of look at everything."
Video: Lightning's season ends after Game 7 loss to Capitals
Tampa Bay has reached the conference final three times in the past four seasons. It lost Game 7 to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, when it lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games.
Stamkos said he does not feel like the championship window is closed on the Lightning and points to young players including goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, 23, forwards Brayden Point, 22, and Anthony Cirelli, 20; and defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, 19. Those four, along with Stamkos; defenseman Victor Hedman, a Norris Trophy finalist; and forward Nikita Kucherov should keep the Lightning near the top of the standings next season.
Coach Jon Cooper said Sergachev made incredible strides this season, and Vasilevskiy, a Vezina Trophy finalist, proved he is on track to become an elite goalie in the NHL.
"Talk about a growth year [for Vasilevskiy], getting the net as a full-time starter, playing  games," Cooper said. "That's a hard thing to do and mentally he passed all those tests. Then for me, it's winning a playoff series. And he had played in the playoffs but he hadn't won a playoff series, so for him to come in here and take two this year and almost a third, that just spells positives for him moving forward."
The Lightning will enter the offseason in good health, although forward Ryan Callahan said he will need to have a procedure done on his shoulder and, depending on the severity, could miss time in training camp.
Callahan said the loss to Washington will stick with him like the other playoff losses he's had in his NHL career, but he believes Tampa Bay has the players to win the Stanley Cup.
"I definitely think we're capable," he said. "Our body of work has shown that we're right there. The guys that we have in that room have the ability to take that next step. The core has been together for quite a while and accomplished some good things. We want to win together, that's for sure."