The Tampa Bay Lightning's quest to make a second consecutive Stanley Cup Final ended Thursday with a 2-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.
Here are 5 reasons the Lightning were eliminated:
1. NO STEVEN STAMKOS
The Lightning made it through the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs without Stamkos, but his absence was felt in Games 1-6 against the Penguins. He returned for Game 7, but one can only wonder what a healthy Stamkos would have meant to Tampa Bay in the series, especially if he was on a line with Jonathan Drouin, who had five goals and nine assists in the playoffs, looking every bit like the player the Lightning expected to get when they selected him with the third pick of the 2013 NHL Draft. Perhaps Stamkos would have scored on his second-period chance against rookie goalie Matt Murray had he not been out since March 31 recovering from a blood clot near his right collarbone that required surgery.
2. NO BEN BISHOP
Not to take anything away from goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was stellar against the Penguins and may have been the main reason the series went seven games, but Bishop is the Lightning's No. 1 goaltender and arguably was the best goalie remaining in the postseason when he sustained a lower-body injury in the first period of Game 1. Vasilevskiy made 37 saves in Game 7, but he failed to cover a loose puck before Bryan Rust poked in the game-winning goal for Pittsburgh. It was a big mistake and one that Bishop probably doesn't make. Without Bishop's ability to play the puck, Tampa Bay struggled to clear the zone and often was harassed by Pittsburgh's speed and relentless forecheck.
3. SHOT DIFFERENTIAL
Pittsburgh outshot Tampa Bay 39-17 in Game 7 -- it was the third time the Penguins had an advantage of 20 or more -- and 269-178 for the series. Vasilevskiy was up for the challenge in each game, but the pressure he faced was overwhelming at times, and the Penguins knew if they kept peppering the young goalie with shots, some would eventually go in. Pittsburgh used its speed to take away any space Tampa Bay had to operate. The Penguins forced the Lightning to work hard for everything, whether it was carrying the puck up the ice or getting into their structure on the rare times they had possession in the Pittsburgh zone. And when the Penguins were on offense, they brought constant pressure with all four lines. The "HBK" line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel was particularly difficult to handle for the Lightning defense, combining for six goals and nine assists.
4. QUIET TRIO
Throughout the playoffs, the Lightning were able to lean on defenseman Victor Hedman and forwards Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Johnson, but in the final two games of the conference final, all three went cold. Hedman got an assist on Drouin's goal in Game 7 but was minus-4 in Game 6 and failed to help out Anton Stralman when Sidney Crosby scored the game-winning goal. Kucherov didn't have a point and was limited to three shots on goal. Johnson also was kept off the score sheet and was minus-5. These three players basically carried the Lightning the past two postseasons but couldn't get it done against the Penguins.
5. GAME 6 FAILURE
For the second consecutive year, the Lightning played poorly in Game 6 of the conference final with a chance to close out the series on home ice. For two periods, they looked like they were waiting for something to happen instead of creating chances, and the Penguins grabbed a 3-0 lead. Tampa Bay woke up in the third period, but it was too little, too late. Last year, the Lightning were able to recover and defeat the New York Rangers on the road in Game 7, but this year it was too much to ask of a team that clearly was a step slower than the Penguins.