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Lightning's aspirations of Stanley Cup end with Game 7 loss to Capitals

Tampa Bay's season concludes prematurely in Eastern Conference Final

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / NHL.com Staff Writer

TAMPA -- Steven Stamkos sat in front of his locker with a glazed look, staring into space in disbelief, his Stanley Cup dreams having disappeared.

Just like the offense of his Tampa Bay Lightning.

 

[WATCH: All Capitals vs. Lightning highlights | Complete Lightning vs. Capitals series coverage]

 

If you are dissecting the reasons why the Lightning captain and his talented teammates saw their season end rather than continue in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights, look no further than their inability to score goals down the stretch.

A season filled with so much promise came to a premature end after the Lightning dropped a 4-0 decision to the Washington Capitals in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final at Amalie Arena on Wednesday.

The Capitals advanced to the Cup Final for the first time since 1998 and will face the Golden Knights in Game 1 in Las Vegas on Monday (8 p.m. ET: NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).

The Lightning went 1-3 at home in this best-of-7 series. None was more bitter to digest than Game 7, when Tampa Bay hoped the capacity crowd of 19,092 would push them to the Cup Final.

But fans don't score goals. And when it mattered most, neither did the Lightning.

Video: Discussing the Lightning being eliminated in Game 7

They could not beat Capitals goalie Braden Holtby in the final 159:27 of the series, the equivalent of almost eight periods. Though Holtby deserves full credit, the Lightning are guilty of self-imploding as well.

A prime example occurred with the Lightning trailing 3-0 after two periods in Game 7. Instead of coming out for the third period with a sense of desperation, Tampa Bay did not record its first shot until there was 9:04 remaining.

That has nothing to do with the opposing goalie; it was a lack of execution by the Lightning. Just ask Stamkos.

"You can't expect to win at this time of the year if you can't score," Stamkos said. "We have to give them some credit; that's a very good team over there, their goaltender played extremely well the last two games and we probably felt how they felt for a couple of those games when (Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy) stole some from there. We needed to be better 5-on-5."

Stamkos scored four goals in the series against the Capitals, all on the power play, but was held without a point over the final three games. Linemate Nikita Kucherov had one goal in the series, none 5-on-5.

Stamkos had 86 points (27 goals, 59 assists) during the regular season; Kucherov had 100 (39 goals, 61 assists). 

"It's just a very disappointing, gut-wrenching feeling knowing how special this group was and not ending the way we wanted it to," Stamkos said. "It really sinks in tomorrow, that feeling when you wake up and you think you are just going to keep playing.

"We've been in that mentality, working extremely hard here for these three rounds. And now it's over."

When the horn sounded and the traditional handshake line was completed, Lightning coach Jon Cooper walked into the locker room and tried to find the words that just weren't there. What do you say to a team suffering from the emotions of a heart-crushing defeat expected to win?

"It's a speech you don't prepare for because I didn't think this was going to happen," Cooper said. "It's tough trying to find the words right now and digest this. Talk tomorrow or the next day.

"I'm damn proud of them, I'll tell you that. To miss the playoffs one year and then go to Game 7 of the conference final the next, it takes a lot of work. The guys put it in and were almost rewarded for it."

Almost.

The Lightning finished the regular season with a franchise record 113 points (54-23-5). There was so much reason for hope and aspirations of bringing Tampa Bay its first Stanley Cup since 2004.

"You hope every year it's going to be the year, but we have a special group in here, there's no question about that," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "We've battled through adversity and tough losses."

None tougher this season than the one that ended it.

All that's left to ponder is what could have been.

Video: Capitals claim Cup Final bid with 4-0 Game 7 win

 

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