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A most memorable Tampa Bay Lightning season is cut just short

Steven Stamkos stays down, his nose bloodied and broken after getting hit in the face with the puck during the second period.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Steven Stamkos stays down, his nose bloodied and broken after getting hit in the face with the puck during the second period.

BOSTON

What you ask is simple:

That, in the fury of the playoffs, a team leave nothing behind.

And so let it be recorded that Tampa Bay's postseason began six weeks ago with Marty St. Louis surrendering his teeth in Pittsburgh, and it ended Friday night in Boston with Steven Stamkos offering the blood from his broken nose.

And in between?

This determined, likable, overachieving team left its heart on the ice.

Yet, when the final seconds of the season's 100th game ticked away, it was not quite enough.

"In terms of dedication, relentlessness, structure, paying the price, fighting for the guy beside you, you couldn't have asked for more," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "This was a family.

"And you know what's tough? It's that you lose, but you know not everybody is going to be back. You know this was a special team with special people. That's what I told the players after the game."

The Bruins beat Tampa Bay 1-0 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final, putting an end to the most shocking season the Lightning has known.

A franchise that had been left for dread not long ago came within one victory of reaching the Stanley Cup final for the second time in seven years.

"The last few days, you're so close, you start thinking about it. You start dreaming about it," captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "You have to stop yourself and focus on the next game. But it's so hard not to think about it."

The Lightning simply did not have enough in the end. It wasn't any one thing, and it wasn't any one person.

The offense was shut out for the second time in the series, but this is the same team that scored 21 goals in the other five games against Boston's Tim Thomas.

And Dwayne Roloson lost for the first time in his career in eight elimination games, but he was brilliant for most of the night. Even better than Thomas.

And the defense had a lapse in the third period, but how do you blame a unit that gave up one goal in its two Game 7 performances this postseason?

You can nit, you can pick, you can analyze it all summer long, but the Bruins were simply better. Maybe by an inch or two, but it was ultimately enough.

And how can you be disappointed by that?

"No regrets," Lecavalier said. "Since the first day of training camp we've worked so hard for this. The whole year, just believing and believing.

"That's what makes this so hard now."

In the days to come, this will surely be recalled as the most unexpected season in the history of a franchise. More shocking even than the Stanley Cup title of 2004.

For, if you think back, you'll remember the promise and momentum of the 2004 team had been gathering over several calendars. You could at least see it coming, even if you weren't fully convinced they were going to pull it off.

This time, the Lightning appeared without any thunder at all. No one was talking about the Stanley Cup, and only the most hopeful were expecting a spot in the playoffs.

This was a brand new owner putting his faith in an unproven GM who hired an untested head coach who led an uneven roster to within one win of the Stanley Cup final.

"So much positive this year. Just that one little negative. That Game 7 we lose," said St. Louis. "As you get older, they hurt more I think. Because you know now how hard it is to get here."

This was a team that was hard to watch, but impossible to ignore. A team that seemed to revel in the uneasy moments between doubt and despair.

And, make no mistake, desperation has been a large part of this run. The Bolts have been behind in most of the games they've played. They trailed the Penguins from the start of that series, and were chasing the Bruins for most of this series.

Tampa Bay tried to mimic the style it played when it beat Pittsburgh 1-0 in a Game 7 a month ago, but the result was reversed.

This time the Lightning blinked when Mattias Ohlund, Eric Brewer and Stamkos had a momentary miscommunication in the defensive zone.

"It's that gray area of, 'Is he mine, is he yours?' And everybody hesitated," Boucher said. "We had numbers. It wasn't a breakaway, it wasn't two-on-one, it wasn't any of that.

"That's the one thing we didn't want. We didn't want to come out of this game giving up a freebie for a goal and for the rest of the summer go, "What …' "

So savor it. Revel in it. Remember it all.

Because no matter how it ended, it should not be forgotten what these players accomplished.

It was not just the 46 victories in the regular season, and it was not simply the victories over Pittsburgh and Washington in the playoffs.

It was the way a team helped you fall in love with hockey all over again.

A most memorable Tampa Bay Lightning season is cut just short 05/28/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 28, 2011 1:41am]

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