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Lightning fall short in quest for third straight Stanley Cup title

In a tightly contested series, with the Lightning digging deep on multiple nights, Colorado ends the champs’ run.
Tampa Bay Lightning players look as the Colorado Avalanche celebrate their Stanley Cup win after Game 6 on Sunday in Tampa.
Tampa Bay Lightning players look as the Colorado Avalanche celebrate their Stanley Cup win after Game 6 on Sunday in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 27|Updated Jun. 27

TAMPA — This Lightning team won’t bear the title of Stanley Cup champion. It won’t have its spot in history engraved forever on the Cup. And though its goal of becoming the first team in nearly four decades to win three straight titles fell two wins short, it will hold a deserving place in Lightning history.

The Lightning’s reign ended in Game 6 of the Cup final with a 2-1 loss to the Avalanche on Sunday night at Amalie Arena. A team that showed such resilience in battling back from the brink ultimately was on the short side at the final horn to a Colorado team that proved to be superior, but not by much.

As a new champion celebrated on the Lightning’s home ice, players who battled through 71 playoff games over the past three seasons quietly hunched over in fatigue.

“There’s probably a lot of teams that get to this position and feel like they had an unbelievable year,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “And for us, it’s disappointing because we know what we have in there. We know that feeling that (the Avalanche are) having over there right now. It’s the best in the world. Sometimes you forget the other side of it, and it’s tough.”

The last time the Lightning lost the final game of a season was three years and two months ago, Game 4 of their first-round sweep by the Blue Jackets. Since then, they’ve become the gold standard in hockey, and they came close to becoming the first team to win three straight championships in the salary-cap era and the first since the Islanders dynasty teams of the early 1980s.

The Lightning faced elimination in the first round, down three games to two to the Maple Leafs, and won. They swept the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers in the second round and trailed the Rangers 2-0 before winning four straight to win the Eastern Conference final.

Then the Lightning rallied from 2-0 and 3-1 down to the Avalanche in the Cup final, pushing Colorado to a sixth game.

“(Sunday) is a crushing loss, and we play this whole season to get to this goal, and we finished two days short of being a part of history,” coach Jon Cooper said, referencing what would have been a Game 7 on Tuesday.

“But this group is part of history. … I hope people talk about that group in there for decades. … You don’t do it by fluke. And these guys work their way to that point. We just met our match in this series.”

The Lightning’s dream of making history was born from the pain of disappointments — two Game 7 losses in the conference final and the loss to Columbus in 2019 — and they learned that winning games when they matter most is built through defense and discipline, not necessarily skill and showmanship.

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Though the Lightning lost the first two games of this year’s Cup final, including a 7-0 rout in Game 2, this final was a classic. Two heavyweights slugged and counter-punched. Four of the series’ six games were decided by a goal. Colorado needed overtime for two of its wins.

“The first couple of games weren’t really our identity, and I thought we got better as the series went on,” Stamkos said. “It was just too tough of a hole to overcome against a quality team like that.

“But listen, these guys are so proud of the group that we have in there. It’s so hard to get here, and nothing we say now or do is going to make this feeling go away for a while, but I’m proud of the guys.”

Game 6 was the kind the game the Lightning wanted, the kind of low-scoring, tight-checking game they have built their championship formula on. But the Avalanche borrowed the formula, taking a 2-1 lead into the third period after trailing 1-0 following the first, and defending it down the stretch.

Following the final horn, Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy skated to the center circle for the handshake line and watched the Avalanche’s celebration.

“To be able to come and win now, you realize just how difficult it is to do,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. “I have to tip my hat to (the Lightning) because I don’t know how they did it.

“There’s a tremendous amount of respect there. They’ve been the benchmark that we’ve been kind of eying as a team that we want to emulate.”

While it was difficult for the Lightning to wrap their head around the end of their mission, Stamkos was quick to say this group’s story isn’t over.

“Who says we’re done, right?” he said. “This core is here. We’ve battled. We’ve been through everything you could think of, and for the most part, we found a way to come out on top, so it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.

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