Lightning's slightly comforting consolation prize? Battle-tested experience
TAMPA, Fla. -- Their faces were shaved. Their dressing room — a hub of activity since the postseason began in mid-April — filled with an eerie calm.
A dry-erase board near an entrance included a message that informed Tampa Bay Lightning players of an upcoming team dinner. A lingering sense of, "What if?" and "What next?" was woven into words that served as reflections of a wild and formative ride now over.
"'Experience' was the word used before the series a lot in regards to Chicago," Lightning center Steven Stamkos said Wednesday at Amalie Arena. "I guess we can say we have that now. We've been here. It sucks that you have to work as hard as you did and sacrifice as hard as you did just to get to that opportunity and not take advantage of it. But this group has been through a lot."
Don't call this group a bunch of baby-faced dreamers anymore. Don't call them green. Don't call them unproven, unaware.
After their loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in a six-game Stanley Cup Final, the Lightning are different than when the puck dropped in Game 1 of their series against the Detroit Red Wings in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals on April 16 at Amalie Arena — a start that seems longer than two months ago.
They have scars. They have gained lessons. They have grasped how painfully close the difference between hoisting the Cup and hanging their heads can be, during a crash course in championship hockey, taught by a proven winner who should serve as a model for what Tampa Bay wants to become.
Now the Lightning's duty is to recognize the slight gap between the clutching the Stanley Cup and settling for second place — the tantalizing separation between a good season and a historic one — and close it before future runs.
"Probably the difference really was Chicago's experience," said Steve Yzerman, the Lightning's vice president and general manager. "As well as we played and kind of forced them in some of these games, they didn't make a lot of mistakes. They were able to weather the times when we really had the pressure on them."
There's no telling if Tampa Bay will be presented with this opportunity again. That's what makes the close call so frustrating for everyone from the players to the coaches to the front-office members. As much talk as there is in hockey dedicated to trends and strategy, sometimes, the sport truly is a game of inches. Luck plays a part. The series between the Lightning and Blackhawks felt that way at times, a deflection here or a ping of the post there, flipping fortune in Chicago's favor.
Still, a deeper value for the Lightning can be gained from this loss. They learned luck is no arbitrary, cosmic power. It can be earned.
The Blackhawks, after all, won three Stanley Cup titles in six years for a reason. Instead of being held to one goal or fewer four times, they rallied for at least two in all six contests against the Lightning. Instead of seeing their offensive push clogged by quality goaltending and a sound defensive strategy, they found a way to break through, whether it was in Game 1, Game 4 or Game 5, when they either trailed or were tied in the series.
That extra spark proved why the Blackhawks earned their party Monday at the United Center. The Lightning are capable of doing the same on some future summer night.
"The series was so close," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "I think we could have taken advantage a little bit of those early games. When we came out of here 2-2 ... maybe we could have been up 3-1 coming here and had a little bit more of a chance to close them out. But ultimately, they found ways to win the games that were in the balance.
"They just found ways to win those games. We couldn't win those games. And as the series went on, maybe their experience took over. They'd been there before. They smelled it. And then, ultimately, in Game 6, it seemed to come down to the end of the series who was going to get that first goal."
It will be fascinating to follow this tested Tampa Bay team in seasons ahead. It will be revealing to see how the Lightning manage the expectation that they'll be perennial contenders for the next three to five years ... or more.
Last fall, they began with a more ambitious outlook because of their postseason berth in 2014. But what will come as a result of this memorable trek through the Stanley Cup playoffs will make those early pressures look like child's play.
Grown-up team. Grown-up demands.
"I think all of the games could have gone to either team," Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said, revisiting a formative series that will shape so much of Tampa Bay's future. "I know if we were sitting here now, us 4-2, I don't know if a lot of people would have any argument against that, really. I can't say what decided that series, honestly. It really is a game of inches."
Sometimes, the difference between elation and agony really is that small.
Champions learn how to tip the balance in their favor.