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'Who says we're done?' Bolts' season is over, but not their dynasty run

The Tampa Bay Lightning have made the Eastern Conference Finals in six of the last eight seasons.

TAMPA, Fla. — With red, puffy eyes, Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos addressed the media immediately following the 2-1 loss at home to end their season in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.

While his teammates answered questions for two-to-three minutes, the leader of the team stayed for nearly eight minutes as he tried to provide words in an indescribable moment.

"It's crushing," Stamkos said. "There are probably a lot of teams who get to this position and feel like they had an unbelievable year. For us, it's disappointing because we know what we have [in that locker room]. We know that feeling [the Avalanche] are having right now. It's the best in the world. Sometimes you forget the other side of it."

Only two other teams in NHL history can say they have rattled off double-digit consecutive series victories. It was a completely different narrative back in 2019 when the Bolts were swept by Columbus.

These were the two-time defending champions keeled over at the horn, in their own building, with Colorado celebrating. It was a realization that life at the top cannot last forever.

There was also an understanding this team gripped onto the Stanley Cup as long as they possibly could before the Avalanche finally earned their third ever date with the coveted trophy.

"We didn't quit. We left it on the ice," Stamkos said. "That's what we talked about. Leave it all out there. Sometimes it's not good enough, but we left it out there."

They certainly did.

The Lightning went through three straight 50-win teams before falling to a fourth one. No Stanley Cup Champion, since the tie was eliminated, has ever beaten more than two teams with 50-plus wins in the playoffs.

It's reminiscent of the 2018 Cavaliers and LeBron James. A moment where making it to the Finals was so remarkable given the circumstances that it felt like a title victory in and of itself. 

It felt like the Tampa Bay Lightning extracted every ounce of their being to make it that far.

And they fell two wins short.

"These guys are right up there with the 80s Islanders, Oilers, those teams you talk about for decades," Bolts head coach Jon Cooper said. "I hope people talk about [this team] for decades."

But here's the thing, the Lightning is not ready to fade into anonymity.

"Who says we're done?" Stamkos asked.

He is right.

Entering next season, most of this team will be returning. The only names entering free agency are Ondrej Palat, Nick Paul and Jan Rutta. 

Palat logged 21 points this postseason. Nick Paul has become a fan favorite and was instrumental in that Game 7 victory against Toronto. Also, Rutta has played a total of 44 playoff games with the Bolts on the blueline these past three postseasons.

The Lightning might be able to bring one of these players back, and their contributions should not be minimized, but when it comes to the stars of this group -- they'll be back.

They are also a tight group.

Even when the Lakers won three in a row two decades ago, the last "three-peat" in the four main professional sports, that unit was fracturing.

This group has not and did not splinter.

They actually dug deeper than the first two Stanley Cup runs required to put an Eastern Conference Championship banner inside Amalie Arena.

That banner should be respected just as much as the other two preceding it.

And let's not forget, the Colorado Avalanche was one of the more dominant championship teams we've seen in a quite awhile.

"Joe Sakic and Jared Bednar and that whole crew, that's a hell of a hockey team," Cooper said. "That's why our guys should hang high. It's not like we lost to some powderpuff. That’s a baller hockey team."

It took an elite squad to dethrone the champs.

The Avalanche went 33% on the power play in the postseason. They had 10 comeback victories, lost a total of four playoff games with only one of those on the road.

"They bettered us and we have no bones to pick," Cooper said.

This Stanley Cup Final was decided by the slimmest of margins. There were four one-goal games with two of those matchups heading into overtime. In the end, whether it was the wear-and-tear of a third Stanley Cup run or the slew of injuries this squad endured, the Avalanche had legs at the end of games to win and the Bolts did not.

Not too mention, Tampa Bay beat the Maple Leafs in Game 7, swept the Panthers and came back against the Rangers without Brayden Point -- someone who has led the team in playoff scoring in back-to-back postseasons.

During the 2021 playoff campaign, after winning the 2020 Stanley Cup, Jon Cooper asked his group, 'Are you full?'

It was never about this group getting satisfied, though. 

By the end of this run, it was more like, 'are you empty?'

And yes, they were. 

They emptied the tank. 

The biggest fear for all of these players was squandering an opportunity at history, and there should be zero regrets with how this Stanley Cup attempt played out.

The only other team who understands what the Bolts are going through, during the salary cap era, are the Pittsburgh Penguins. After their back-to-back run, they lost to the Washington Capitals who went on the win the 2018 Stanley Cup.

The Penguins have not made it past the second round ever since.

The window of success is so slim in this league and you never know when the Lightning will make it back to the Stanley Cup Final again.

"Who says we're done?" Stamkos might say.

If these guys continually show the fight they displayed these previous two months, it's hard to think they don't have another shot of greatness coming in the near future.

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