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BOSTON -- To walk into the Tampa Bay Lightning dressing room after Friday's Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals was to confront the dark side of that fine line that separates winning and losing.
In one corner, Teddy Purcell sat hunched over, his head in his hands.
Ryan Malone, his nose still scarred from a battle earlier in the series against Boston, sat across the way with socks bunched around his ankles and skates still done up.
Steven Stamkos answered questions through a broken, bloody nose.
Martin St. Louis sat on a folding chair, still dressed from the waist down, arms folded across his chest as he tried to digest the 1-0 loss that separated his team from a trip to the Stanley Cup finals and ended an emotional season. He's been on the other side of that line, of course.
St. Louis and the Lightning beat Philadelphia on home ice in Game 7 of the 2004 conference finals en route a Cup win in a seventh game against Calgary. He understood the euphoria that enveloped the Boston Bruins' locker room Friday night. He also knows it's been seven years since he experienced that feeling and that these moments pass by infrequently, if at all.
"As you get older, they hurt more because you know how hard it is to get here," said St. Louis, the heart and soul of Tampa Bay's team. "I'm proud of what we've done in a short period of time. We got to within one goal of the Stanley Cup final. I'm proud to be a Lightning. There was so much positive this year and just one little negative: a Game 7 that we lost."
|Guy Boucher led the Lightning to the Eastern Conference finals in his first season as coach.|
Although the Lightning didn't dominate offensively, as they had at times in the series, there were enough great chances and missed opportunities to make for a summer of painful memories.
"I've never felt like this before after a hockey game," said Purcell, who enjoyed a breakout postseason for the Lightning with 17 points in 18 games. "I guess that's part of the sport; obviously, you've got to learn from it. But it just goes to show how close the league is. It came down to a seventh game and one good play by them and it's a 1-0 game. It's definitely a hard one to swallow. It's going to be a tough summer, but you've got to learn from it and you've got to give them credit."
It sounds trite after such an emotional loss, but this is a loss that has to be tempered by so much good that surrounds this franchise. Coming off a period of disastrous ownership, when fans fled and the team floundered, the Lightning have mounted a remarkable renaissance in just one calendar year.
"Tampa Bay certainly deserves a lot of credit," Boston coach Claude Julien said. "The fact of where they were before this year for the last few seasons, and to come back this year and play the way they did, and then push us straight to the limit in the third round of the playoffs, I think they deserve a lot of credit.
"From the ownership down, they've obviously done a pretty good job, and they certainly gave us all we could take. So I think even though they lost, I think they need to be congratulated on their season."
Starting with owner Jeff Vinik and the hiring of GM Steve Yzerman, who then brought in coach Guy Boucher, the Lightning have gone from laughingstock to within a goal of going to the Stanley Cup finals.
"Obviously, it's difficult," Boucher said. "It's difficult because you know what your players put on the ice is every little ounce of energy that they have left, so there's a lot of respect that comes at the end of this. ...
"We had a year that was so full of adversity," he added. "You start the year and you have half the team that's new, an entire staff that's new, an administration that's new. The GM and president, CEO and owner, and so many new people coming together, and I just think it's outstanding that the players and everybody else involved in the organization was able to get this team to be a team real fast."
There were a host of revelations this spring.
• Boucher turned out to be a top-notch tactician and motivator in his first NHL postseason.
• Stamkos took a puck off the face in the second period of Game 7 and missed about five minutes of play before returning, his nose still bloodied, with a full cage on. He did not score as much as he would have liked but proved he is a gamer and will be a playoff force moving forward.
"Yeah, I've broke my nose before. It was just a weird play," Stamkos said. "A guy cut in front of me, and I didn't see the puck coming. It hit me square on, but there's nothing that was going to keep anyone in this dressing room from staying out of this game."
• Sean Bergenheim missed the last two games with a lower-body injury but had nine goals this spring.
• Purcell turned out to be a deft playmaker and provided timely scoring.
• Veteran goalie Dwayne Roloson was spectacular in Game 7 after having a couple of ordinary outings in previous games of the conference finals.
"He was awesome. I just hope he comes back next year," Purcell said. "He made some unbelievable saves tonight. Some huge saves. Can't say enough good things about Roli."
• Backup netminder Mike Smith played well in relief in three games of the East finals and might have shown he has the mental moxie to be an NHL starter.
• Victor Hedman, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 NHL draft, was a horse in Game 7 after showing some jitters earlier in the series.
There will be offseason changes, of course.
Yzerman has a host of free agents to deal with, including deciding what to do about his goaltending. Veteran Simon Gagne, injured early in the second round, appeared tired by Game 7 on Friday night.
But those are decisions for another day.
For now, there will be time to bandage wounds and wonder at a journey that carried the Lightning far, but not far enough.
"If you take a step back and look at the big picture, you realize just how far we've come," Stamkos said. "It is pretty amazing. I think we've got the best bunch of guys I've ever played with in my career.
"It is bittersweet, obviously, because if we win this game, we give ourselves a chance to play for the Stanley Cup," he added. "You never know when you're going to get that chance again. It is heartbreaking right now, but to do it with this bunch of guys has been a great run and something I'll always remember, but I'll also remember how close we were."