You could see it in the dejection splashed across the face of Steven Stamkos, and hear it in the considered whisper of Jon Cooper: the Tampa Bay Lightning were spent, physically and emotionally, and at a loss for appropriate words in the wake of losing the Stanley Cup final to the superior Blackhawks Monday. Undoubtedly, their fans and management were devastated as well; you would be too if you cheered on or built up a speedy and skilled roster of players who defied the odds and two of the league's very best goalies en route to their fourth-round showdown against the Hawks. To get within eye distance of a lifelong dream and fall short is about as excruciating as it gets for professional athletes and those who support them.
But the mourning period for this edition of the team ought to be short, because the Lightning are anything but one-year wonders. The group GM Steve Yzerman has in place will have just as good a chance of returning to next year's Cup final and at least a couple more after that. The Bolts are young, their salary cap situation is tenable – and if you look closely enough at this year's squad, you'll see they should be a little more lucky when next they're playing for the best trophy in all of sport. And they will be back, and at least as dangerous next time around.
Indeed, the post-series revelation that Lightning goalie Ben Bishop was playing with a torn groin and blossoming star center Tyler Johnson was still in the lineup despite suffering a broken or fractured thumb or hand tells you right away Tampa Bay wasn't playing at its very best. Granted, every playoff team expects at least one or two serious injuries to present obstacles to their Cup hopes, but Johnson and Bishop hardly could be more crucial to the Bolts' ability to keep pace with a powerhouse franchise such as Chicago.
And that brings us to the next point: they lost to Chicago – a team that's celebrating its third Cup win in six years and is currently and properly being acknowledged as a modern-day dynasty. After defeating the Red Wings (including Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk), Canadiens (including P.K. Subban and Carey Price) and the Rangers (featuring Ryan McDonagh and Henrik Lundqvist), the Lightning's best players had the herculean task of squaring off against two of the very best defensive forwards on the planet today in Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa and two of the top blueliners alive in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
Meanwhile, the Blackhawks didn't always do it easily, but they derailed three excellent Western Conference franchises any way they wanted to play. They averaged nearly four goals a game in the first round against Nashville, shut down a tough and defense-minded Minnesota Wild team in the second round by allowing just seven goals in a series sweep, and dropped 18 goals on Anaheim in their four conference final victories. Although it wasn't the deciding factor, Chicago's pedigree did play a role here, and one that was hard for the Bolts to get around. But they've received an education that will last with them throughout next season and the seasons after that, and that's the key here.
Lightning GM Steve Yzerman knows this, which is why he isn't likely to do much to the roster this summer. Really, he doesn't have to: virtually all of his players are under contract (only soon-to-be restricted free agents Mark Barbiero, Andrej Sustr and Luke Witkowski, and unrestricted free agents Brenden Morrow, Michael Angelidis and Jerome Samson remain unsigned), and although Yzerman doesn't have much salary cap space with which to play, he's proven to be a shrewd mover on the trade market. Not that he needs to be; with youngsters Ondrej Palat, Johnson, Alex Killorn, Nikita Kucherov and Jonathan Drouin in tow, Yzerman doesn't need big-cost components. He's looking for complementary pieces, and he doesn't have to pay through the nose for that. He just has to be smart about it.
Now, it most certainly won't be a cake walk for the Bolts to return to the Cup final next season. Montreal will be better, the Rangers will likely make another push, the Islanders are an up-and-coming group and with even a bit more luck on the injury front, the Blue Jackets may surprise people. But those teams don't have the depth of young scoring the Lightning do, and they don't have Stamkos or Victor Hedman. Those factors alone will keep Tampa Bay among the elite teams of the East. This is a special group that isn't turning into a lemon in the near-future.
The sting of the final blow hurts on a night like this, but the pain in and around the Lightning organization should subside in a hurry when the sober light of morning provides the reassurance that they did a slew of things right in 2014-15.
Look on the bright side: how many teams wish they were at the stage where their next step forward will be the final one?