PITTSBURGH — One by one, starting with captain Steven Stamkos, Lightning players slowly and somberly skated over to embrace goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, the only reason Thursday's riveting Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final was even close.
It began to sink in: Their special season was over.
"It's a terrible feeling, horrible," center Brian Boyle said. "Just in disbelief that (today) it's the offseason."
But as the Lightning watched the Penguins celebrate their 2-1 victory, the Consol Energy Center crowd roaring, the stinging loss provided a stark realization for the Lightning that the right team from the East will play for the Stanley Cup. Tampa Bay got outshot 39-17 (64-42 in attempts) in Game 7 and was dominated in possession.
"They deserved to advance," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "They played better hockey this whole series."
Said Stamkos: "They had an extra gear (Thursday)."
The Lightning, trying to become the first team since the 2008-09 Penguins and Red Wings to reach back-to-back Stanley Cup finals, thought it was destined to do it, having already overcome so much. It advanced two playoff rounds without Stamkos and Stralman, who returned in Game 2 of the East final from a broken left leg. It played most of this round without Vezina Trophy finalist goalie Ben Bishop, who was carried off a stretcher in Game 1. Not even Stamkos' surprising and dramatic return Thursday after missing two months because of a blood clot was enough.
The Lightning, which held a 3-2 lead in this best-of-seven series, let a chance at the Cup get away.
"It's always tough going out like this," Stralman said. "You go into every year thinking, 'This is it. This time we're going to go all the way.' We just couldn't pull through."
Tampa Bay heads into an uncertain offseason, starting with Stamkos, due to be an unrestricted free agent July 1. He said he wasn't thinking about his future after the game, but his teammates were.
"You hope you can stick together, but you just never know," Boyle said.
The good news for the Lightning is wing Jonathan Drouin, whose trade request, holdout and return became one of the sport's top stories, said he expects to be back next season. Drouin's monster postseason included his team's only goal Thursday.
"It just stinks to lose," Drouin said.
Vasilevskiy was spectacular again, making 37 saves for his fifth 30-plus-save performance in six starts this series. He'd want to have back Bryan Rust's winning goal midway through the second. He failed to cover the puck after it caromed off the boards. Rust put in the rebound.
"Let's be honest," coach Jon Cooper said, "I don't think we're where we are in this series without (Vasilevskiy)."
Said Stralman: "He was our best player."
Stamkos nearly had a storybook return, just missing on a chance to tie the score at 2 late in the second, his slap shot from the right circle trickling through goalie Matt Murray and just wide.
"I thought I beat him," Stamkos said.
Stamkos said he was extremely proud of his team, believing it had to learn from this and "come back stronger."
"We thought we were destined for some pretty special things," Boyle said. "We accomplished a fair amount but not the ultimate goal."
First—None. Penalties—Malkin, Pit (interference), 6:52; Boyle, TB (slashing), 7:23.
Second—1, Pit, Rust 4 (Kunitz, Malkin), 1:55. 2, TB, Drouin 5 (Filppula, Hedman), 9:36. 3, Pit, Rust 5 (Lovejoy, Malkin), 10:06. Penalties—Paquette, TB (roughing), 2:55; Cole, Pit (elbowing), 2:55; Callahan, TB (high-sticking), 12:23; Drouin, TB (holding), 14:54; Letang, Pit (tripping), 15:13; Hedman, TB (slashing), 16:54.
Third—None. Penalty—Kucherov, TB (delay of game), 10:38. Shots on Goal—TB 5-5-7—17. Pit 8-21-10—39. Power-play opportunities—TB 0 of 1; Pit 0 of 5. Goalies—TB, Vasilevskiy 3-4 (39 shots-38 saves). Pit, Murray 11-4 (17-16).