BOSTON — In the midst of a locker room swirling with players, reporters and emotions, Lightning center Nate Thompson found a quiet corner.
It was there he contemplated a painful end but also what he believes is a promising beginning.
"This is one of the hardest things I've ever dealt with," Thompson said after Friday's 1-0 loss to the Bruins at TD Garden in the seventh and deciding game of the Eastern Conference final.
"But I hope guys who are in their contract years (return) because we have a good nucleus of a team here with a mix of younger and older guys. I think we have something really special that we can build on."
Perhaps that is what made the loss so difficult to process.
Players talk all the time about how they bond over a season, but the Lightning seemed tighter than most teams. Players genuinely enjoyed each other's company, even away from the rink.
There did not seem to be cliques, a credit to the team's core leadership. And when, before the playoffs, assistant coach Wayne Fleming was stricken with a malignant brain tumor (he is in a California hospital recovering from the surgery), the postseason was dedicated to him.
"We knew every win that we got put a smile on his face. That was really important to us," coach Guy Boucher said. "We certainly recognize everything he's done for this team and how close we felt as a family."
"This group of guys," center Steven Stamkos said, "is the best I have ever played with in my career."
And they accomplished more than most on the outside predicted.
After three straight years out of the playoffs, Tampa Bay got in by tying team marks with 46 victories and 25 on the road. It became the 24th NHL team to overcome a three-games-to-one deficit in a seven-game series when it beat the Penguins in the East quarterfinals.
It swept the top-seeded Capitals in the semifinals and pushed Boston to the limit despite playing the series without injured defenseman Pavel Kubina and the last eight periods without injured wing Sean Bergenheim, whose nine goals are second in the postseason.
All that with new owner Jeff Vinik, new CEO Tod Leiweke, new general manager Steve Yzerman, 10 new players and Boucher, who never before had coached in the NHL and was the league's youngest bench boss.
"We had a year that was so full of adversity, so many new people coming together," Boucher said. "I just think it's outstanding that the players and everyone else involved in the organization was able to get this team to be a team so fast. That's really difficult."
But not surprising, goaltender Dwayne Roloson said: "We were willing to battle for one another. Every guy was a leader in this locker room, from the youngest guys who haven't played a lot of games to the guys that are veterans and leaders on this team. Everybody chipped in and played their part. This team is so close it is unbelievable."
"Everyone cared about each other," wing Ryan Malone said. "You knew every guy was laying it on the line. That's what builds a team, and you become a family."
So, after Nathan Horton's goal with 7:33 left in the third period Friday, off a perfect feed from David Krejci, and Tim Thomas' 24-save shutout sent the Bruins to the Stanley Cup final against the Canucks and the Lightning home, Thompson said, "It hurts."
But as he looked around the locker room one last time before heading for the shower, he added, "I'm proud to be part of it."