Tuesday June 16th, 2015

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It was tough to watch Steven Stamkos struggling with his emotions after his team’s Stanley Cup dream came to an end in a 2–0 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Monday night.

The captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning was despondent about the missed opportunity for teammates like veteran Brenden Morrow and assistant coach Rick Bowness. So he did what he was supposed to do. He took the blame himself.

Hey, he earned the horns. He deserved to try them on.

“I am here to produce, and that is what I am here for,” he said. “Obviously, I wanted to be better. It wasn’t good enough.”

Game 6 could have had a very different ending for the Lightning. And it was Stamkos who blew the chance to write it.

Blackhawks down Lightning in Game 6 for third Stanley Cup in six seasons

He certainly wasn’t the only Lightning player with no finish in the Cup final, where the league’s highest scoring team during the regular season was held to only two goals in its last three games. But as the player who ranked second to Alex Ovechkin with 43 goals, Stamkos’s offensive struggles were the most glaring.

When his team needed him most, his hands turned to stone. Stamkos finished his season by going eight consecutive games without a goal. He was limited to one assist in the final. And on Monday night, with his team in a must-win situation, his failures proved fatal.

Stamkos had the game on his stick. Twice, in fact. And both times he failed to do the thing he gets paid millions to do—bury it in the back of the net.

WATCH: Duncan Keith gets own rebound for Game 6 goal

That chance in the first period? When he managed to power past a Duncan Keith poke check and send a laser toward Corey Crawford? Few players in the league make even that much out of it, especially against Keith, but Stamkos rang it off the crossbar. Add one to the pile of good looks. Add one to the pile of wasted opportunities.

There was an even better chance in the second when Stamkos snuck behind the defense and retrieved a Hail Mary pass deep in the Chicago end. Despite being on the doorstep, he resisted the urge to just throw it on net and instead slammed on the brakes, forcing Crawford into a belly-down flop. It was a brilliant decision, a goal-scorer’s move. And at that point all Stamkos had to do was flick it over the keeper’s outstretched left pad. Instead he buried it directly into Crawford’s pillow ... and then hit the post on the rebound.

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If Stamkos scores on either of those, it’s a different game. The Hawks are the ones who have to play chase. Game 7 looms large.

Severe weather delays Stanley Cup's arrival at United Center

Instead, he’s left to wonder what might have been if he’d managed to light the lamp just once.

At some point over the next day or two Stamkos’s struggles may gain some context with the revelation of an injury. But it won’t matter. This isn’t the time of year when context or effort or piling up good looks earns a player his spot in history. There are sacrifices demanded by the Cup. Not everyone can live up to them. That’s exactly what makes winning it so very precious.

Stamkos will learn from this. He’s a brilliant player whose best days likely lie ahead. Like Brent Seabrook said on NBC after he’d taken his turn skating the Cup, the Lightning “are going to do over the next six years what we've done for the last six.”

The potential is there, all right. But for now potential all there is. Potential and heartbreak.

And it’s going to be a very long summer in Tampa.

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