“That feeling when you wake up and you think you are just going to keep playing,” he said, “and now it’s over.”
The Lightning saw a 3-2 series lead slip away to the Washington Capitals, who won the Eastern Conference championship with a 4-0 win in Game 7 on Wednesday night, earning the right to face the expansion Vegas Golden Knights for the Stanley Cup.
“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.
The game started poorly for the Lightning: Alex Ovechkin scored just 1:02 into the first period. The team that scores first in Game 7 has gone on to win close to 75 percent of the time.
“Obviously that’s not ideal for a Game 7, and not how we wanted to come out,” defenseman Dan Girardi said.
The 1-0 deficit didn’t deter the Lightning. They pushed offensively after the Ovechkin goal and ended up topping the Capitals in shot attempts 22-17 in the first period. That advantage ballooned to 45-26 by the end of the second period, as the Lightning put 12 shots on Capitals goalie Braden Holtby.
But as the shots piled up, so did the missed opportunities. Holtby stopped Alex Killorn on three great chances, including a breakaway, in the first two periods. Then there was the chance by Yanni Gourde. He was alone in the crease, with Holtby completely out of position thanks to a Victor Hedman move but couldn’t find a handle on the puck to score into a gaping net.
“They boxed us out in front of the net,” Gourde said. “They were really hungry for rebounds and they didn’t want to give us any second opportunities. They did a good job of doing that and you have to give them credit. But some plays we were making during the season we weren’t making right now. Maybe it could have been a confidence level.”
On the other end, Capitals forward Andre Burakovsky took advantage of a Girardi miscue to make it 2-0.
“It’s a dump-in, it hits me in the chest,” Girardi said. “I was just trying to not close my hand on it and take a penalty. It just trickled away from me, couldn’t get it. It’s a tough bounce. I thought actually, for the most part, I played a pretty good game. Then we give him a breakaway, the third one. They seemed to capitalize on their Grade-A chances. We hit a couple posts, just couldn’t find that first one to get momentum. I think we had a lot of good looks, just couldn’t put one in the net.”
After a brilliant pass from John Carlson, Burakovsky scored on a breakaway under eight minutes later for the 3-0 lead.
From there, the Lightning lost their push. But it might not have mattered anyway: Holtby didn’t give up a goal from 33 seconds into the second period in Game 5 through the end of the series, pitching back-to-back shutouts.
“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.”
Even though they were devastated by this loss, there’s a silver lining for the Lightning: Nearly the entire team will be back next season for one more run at the Stanley Cup before some difficult financial decisions must be made with the roster.
“The one thing about Steve Yzerman, he seems to find a way to keep the window open every year. That’s what makes him a top GM. So I never think the window will be closed with this team,” coach Jon Cooper said.
That said, did he feel like this was the year?
“I feel like we had a good enough team to be where we were,” Cooper said. “You go through these playoffs, and you feel you can win every game. You go against a tough Washington team that probably felt the same way. And once you get this far, you’ve probably done some magical things on the way. You think when you get this far, for sure you’re thinking it’s your year. I’m sure they were thinking the same thing. [Ovechkin] has been banging at the door for how many years, and this is the farthest he’s gotten in his career. I’m sure they were using the same thing.
“When you get to this point — and I throw Winnipeg and Vegas in the same breath — you probably could have flipped a coin and not guessed who would win among the four teams. It just sucks for us that we’re not one of the teams that’s left. It’s just tough.”