One year ago, the Lightning sat in its locker room at Chicago's United Center, crestfallen over losing in the Stanley Cup final. Players vowed to remember that pain and use it as fuel to get back to this year's Stanley Cup final. That was the goal. That was the mission. It won't happen. Now that pain is only amplified. A similarly heartbroken locker room could be found Thursday night in Pittsburgh. The Lightning's season of destiny came one goal short of its mission, one game shy of a return trip to the Stanley Cup, the result of a gut-wrenching and frustrating 2-1 loss Thursday night at Pittsburgh in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final. Not even the stunning return of captain and leading scorer Steven Stamkos, who had been out since the end of March with a blood clot, could push the Lightning closer to its dream. "It stings right now," Stamkos said. "This is where we were at last year and we had a good chance to get there this year. … At the end of the day, all the adversity we overcame as a group … we just feel horrible."
And now the Lightning falls back to the bottom of the mountain, along with all the other teams not playing for the Stanley Cup. An opportunity lost. Up next instead: An offseason of uncertainty in which it could lose its best player, the player who risked his health just to put on the Lightning sweater Thursday night, perhaps for the final time.
In the end, it all goes down as a disappointing season, a step back even though adversity conspired to keep the Lightning from playing for the NHL's holiest grail. It played most of the postseason without Stamkos. It played the conference final without goaltender and team MVP Ben Bishop.
Somehow, the resilient Lightning marched on, reaching the conference final. It nearly won this series in six games, but couldn't close the deal on home ice. Still, even without its top two players, it pushed Pittsburgh to seven games.
"I'm pretty sure a lot of people wouldn't have picked us to get this far," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
For that reason, it's hard to beat up this team that has shown as much heart as it has skill, as much guts as it has talent. It's close to miraculous that it got as far as it did.
Tampa Bay played hard Thursday, as it did throughout this series, but despite the close score, it ultimately lost to a team that was just better. The Penguins dominated large chunks of this series, including most of Game 7. A pair of goals by Bryan Rust was the difference in Game 7.
"They deserved to win tonight," Cooper said.
The Penguins deserved to win the series.
"They were the better team in this series," Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. "They deserve to be playing for the Stanley Cup. But I'm so proud to have played with this guys."
Yet, something about this season as a whole feels unfulfilling despite Tampa Bay coming so close to returning to the Cup final. Perhaps wiped out by last year's grueling playoff run, the Lightning stumbled through much of the regular season. While two hot streaks propelled the Lightning into the playoffs, two uneasy story lines cast a shadow over the team.
First, the future of Stamkos, who will become a free agent after the season. Tampa Bay hoped to sign this franchise cornerstone for years to come, but it never happened and it's quite possible he will go elsewhere.
Then there was the soap opera of Jonathan Drouin, a former first-round pick who quit the organization after being demoted to the minor leagues in midseason. He returned and showed flashes of brilliance in the postseason. He scored Tampa Bay's lone goal in Game 7.
"You just have so much love for everyone in this locker room," Lightning center Tyler Johnson said. "It's tough knowing this might be the last time we're all together. Who knows with everything? It's tough. Disappointing."
Yet there is plenty of hope remaining, plenty of reason to believe the Lightning can make more postseason runs in the near future. Key pieces such as Johnson, Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov lead a young, but playoff-tested, core of talented players. The minor-league system, carefully assembled by general manager Steve Yzerman, remains stocked with highly regarded prospects, ready to step in and continue Tampa Bay's winning culture.
And there is Cooper, who has already established himself as one of the sharpest minds in the game, a coach who is able to motivate and guide his team through adversity.
So, yes, the future looks bright. But the pain this morning is fresh and will last.
Maybe until this time next year.