It's almost impossible to imagine how Steven Stamkos feels right now.
As the leader of this young Tampa Bay Lightning team in more ways than one, he's said and done all the right things that we, as fans, want a leader to say and do when faced with such a heartbreaking result: losing the Stanley Cup Final after a grueling-but-exciting run.
He's taken the blame on himself for not producing. He's put others first, invoking names like Rick Bowness and Brenden Morrow, long-time veterans of this league that are still waiting for their chance to hoist the Stanley Cup, and may never get to.
The pain, and frustration, and regret: he wears it on his sleeve.
Stamkos red faced and near tears in his postgame comments. Says he feels terrible for Morrow, Bowness etc. pic.twitter.com/IPrc4PgU6G— James Mirtle (@mirtle) June 16, 2015
Missed opportunities cannot be easy to deal with, but hockey is a cruel sport sometimes. Stamkos know this better than most. Going cold for a 6-game stretch isn't an indictment of him or his character.
It doesn't mean that he isn't clutch. 18 points in 26 playoff games is a substantial effort for a guy facing the hardest competition on a nightly basis. Stamkos was still playing fast, playing hard, and generating chances. The lack of points in the Final really says more about Corey Crawford, who got hot at the right time behind a ridiculously stacked Chicago Blackhawks team that played outstanding in front of him. Still, a handful of pucks skittered just wide, or off the post, or harmlessly through the crease. Such is the nature of hockey: endlessly frustrating more often than not. A game that we equally cherish and bemoan for its randomness.
Last night, and undoubtedly today, Stamkos was and will continue to be questioned by both the media and the worst of us in this community of Tampa Bay Lightning fans. "You didn't try hard enough", they'll say, or "you have to produce when it matters most", or some other variation of thoughtless, petty, shortsighted criticism of a player who gave everything he had and simply fell short. They'll criticize his $7.5 million contract or his demeanor or his ability or his effort. Some will criticize all of the above.
Of course, all of that will pale in comparison to how he will criticize himself. This journey with the Lightning has been going for 7 years now. Steven Stamkos has grown from fresh-faced boy-wonder hotshot into a bona fide captain. Being hard on himself is in his nature; we'd expect nothing less than the hardest offseason training regimen he's ever put himself through.
Try to remember, though, that this bitter end to one season is just the beginning of a window of opportunity for Stamkos and this young Lightning team. Be proud of what they did accomplish. Know that this Bolts team -- wildly ahead of schedule -- went toe-to-toe with the best the National Hockey League has to offer. Through five games they never trailed by more than a single goal. They led more often than they trailed, in fact, through the series' first four games.
Injuries are no excuse, but lack of scoring pop from the Triplets line -- the biggest threat to opposing defenses outside of Stamkos himself -- put more defensive attention on the Lightning captain. Tyler Johnson couldn't receive a pass or shoot a puck. Nikita Kucherov was equally tentative in a decisive Game 6. Jonthan Drouin was glued to the bench, even as it became obvious he was one of the few Lightning players capable of creating anything dangerous against a stout Blackhawks defense.
"Learning how to lose before you can learn how to win" is a terrible cliche in sports, but it's one I'm sure Stamkos and this Lightning team will take to heart. It took a tremendous effort for this team to make it this far. It will take more to make it back here and get the result all 30 teams want but only one can enjoy.
It's a team sport, after all. Steven Stamkos didn't lose this series by himself. The Tampa Bay Lightning were bested by the Chicago Blackhawks -- a modern dynasty. But that means the bar has been raised. Our expectations as fans go up, just as the expectations the players have for themselves go up.
Don't hang your heads. Take a moment to reflect, to refresh, to heal.
Then it's back to work. 85 days until we start this whole thing all over again -- hopefully with a better finish.