TAMPA — It has been more than a year, but Anton Stralman can't get the painful memories out of his head.
Stralman recalls how his Rangers lost three overtime games in the 2014 Stanley Cup final against the eventual champion Kings. And though the veteran defenseman is now with the Lightning and reached the final again this year, he can't help but think about what he could have done differently last year.
"It haunts you," he says. "It really does."
Welcome to the offseason of "what ifs" for the Lightning, its special season having ended in a 4-2 series loss to the Blackhawks in a Stanley Cup final in which all but one game was decided by one goal.
"If we were sitting here now (having won the series) 4-2, I don't know if a lot of people would have had any argument against that, really," Stralman said. "I can't say what decided that series, honestly. It really is a game of inches."
The Lightning was quick to credit the Blackhawks. Coach Jon Cooper called them "really deserving champions." Chicago has won three Cups in six years, and general manager Steve Yzerman said experience might have been the difference.
But when performing the autopsy on this Stanley Cup final, several reasons why the Lightning lost can be found. The regrets might keep the players and coaches up at night throughout this summer.
Home sweet … oh?
The Lightning is kicking itself over its 2-1 Game 1 loss at home. Tampa Bay was in control, up 1-0 with seven minutes left in the third period. But the Lightning played too conservatively, and the Blackhawks scored twice in two minutes to stun the sellout crowd and steal the opener.
"I thought we had a good game," Stralman said. "Sometimes you lose even though you play well, and that's fine. But the way we sat back too much and let them take over, that stung a little bit, knowing what happened."
It was one of two 2-1 home losses in the series for Tampa Bay, which went 6-7 at Amalie Arena in the playoffs after having the league's best home record during the regular season, 32-8-1. But Yzerman said the regular-season record can be deceiving due to scheduling, for example taking advantage of teams playing back-to-back games.
Failing to capitalize at home led to Tampa Bay tying a playoff record with 26 games played — Chicago played 23 — so it should come as little surprise that the Lightning ran out of gas.
Also, think about the 3-2 Game 1 loss in the first round to the Red Wings in which Tampa Bay held a 46-14 shot advantage, the failure to sweep the Canadiens with a 3-0 series lead in Round 2, and the two home losses against the Rangers in the Eastern Conference final, leading to a seven-game series. The Lightning never made it easy on itself, and that cost it in the end.
Every team has injuries in the playoffs. Two of the Lightning's most valuable players — center Tyler Johnson (broken right wrist) and goalie Ben Bishop (torn groin) — suffered significant injuries early in the final that affected their play.
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"I don't want to use it as an excuse," Yzerman said. "But injuries were definitely a factor for us."
Johnson — the league's leading playoff goal scorer with 13 and tied with Chicago's Patrick Kane for most points with 23 — essentially played with one hand after hurting himself in Game 1 of the final. Johnson, a key cog on the team's most dangerous line, "The Triplets," had just one goal, one assist and nine shots in the six-game series. "I wish I could have been better," he said.
Bishop tore his groin in the second period of a 4-3 win in Game 2. He delivered gutsy performances in Games 3, 5 and 6, allowing two goals in each, but he couldn't play in a 2-1 Game 4 loss, replaced by rookie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who made his first start since March 31. The Lightning also lost its second-leading scorer, "Triplet" Nikita Kucherov, early in a Game 5 loss after he collided with a goal post. Yzerman said the wing still wasn't himself in a Game 6 loss.
Where's the offense?
The Lightning was the highest-scoring team in the regular season, averaging 3.16 goals per game, and captain Steven Stamkos was second in the league in goals with 43. But that firepower disappeared in the final, with Tampa Bay mustering just 10 goals in six games, and none by Stamkos. The Lightning lost three games 2-1 and was eliminated 2-0 in Game 6.
Credit the Blackhawks for holding Tampa Bay to 25 or fewer shots in four of the games. They also blocked 23 shots in a 2-1 Game 4 win and 25 in Game 6. With each team's top stars neutralized — besides Stamkos, leading scorer Johnson had just three goals, and Chicago's Jonathan Toews and Kane combined for three — secondary scoring became the difference. Antoine Vermette tallied two winners for Chicago, and rookie Teuvo Teravainen had two goals.
"That team didn't give us a whole lot," Lightning center Brian Boyle said. "Their goalie (Corey Crawford) played really well. We had some chances. A bounce here or there, it's a different story, a different outcome."
Faceoffs aren't a sexy statistic. They don't warrant many SportsCenter highlights. But in a possession-based sport, faceoffs are significant. The Blackhawks dominated them, winning 60 percent in the series (217-of-360). If they wanted to get out of trouble in their end, they could ice the puck, knowing they had a great chance of winning the ensuing faceoff. That made it more difficult for Tampa Bay to sustain an attack and maintain possession on power plays. Having Johnson, with a broken wrist, unable to take draws for most of the series hurt Tampa Bay, too. Wing Ondrej Palat filled in, going 20-for-52 (38 percent). Center Cedric Paquette was 0-for-13 in Game 6.
The Lightning's power play was inconsistent during the playoffs, converting at just 20 percent (17-of-85). But when Tampa Bay needed it the most, it came up empty, going 1-for-13 in the Cup final. "That could have won us the series if we had a better power play," Stralman said. "That's one thing we'd like to go back and change."
Any Cup-winning team will tell you it needed luck along the way. But the Lightning, which had its share of breaks during its playoff run, ran out of them in the final.
There was the closing minute of Game 4, when a Stamkos shot appeared destined for an empty net to tie the score at 2, but Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook barely got his stick on the puck to deflect it wide. There was Bishop coming out of his net and colliding with defenseman Victor Hedman in Game 5, allowing an easy goal for Patrick Sharp in a 2-1 loss for Tampa Bay. Also in that game, Crawford turned the puck over to the Lightning's Kucherov, who not only didn't score but slid into a goal post, which forced him out of the game.
"Their goalie gives one away, we lose our player," Cooper said. "Our goalie gives one away, and it ends up in the net."
Times staff writer Matt Baker contributed to this report. Contact Joe Smith at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.