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Lightning loses to Penguins for Eastern Conference Title

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Turn out the lights. Lock the rink. Gather the sticks.

It is over.

The Tampa Bay Lightning has lost.

The Lightning closed out their 2015-16 season Thursday night, losing a 2-1 game to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bolts led the series three games to two and were at home, but they lost back-to-back games to Pittsburgh to end their season.

“Everybody who plays in this league and coaches in this league knows how hard it is to just get to the final or get this far in the playoffs,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “We didn’t reach a goal to win a Stanley Cup, but I’m pretty sure not a lot of people were picking us to get this far, especially with the catastrophic injuries we had to extremely important players on our team at the beginning of the playoffs.

And we just started plugging other guys in, and players were just rising to the occasion. You know, it’s tough to go injury free. Usually the teams that keep going have — you know, they stay injury free for the most part, and we didn’t. We got hurt before the playoffs, during the playoffs, and then maybe it caught up to us.

But as I said, even with a full lineup, that’s a heck of a team over there. We pushed them to Game 7. We just couldn’t get over the hump.”

The Lightning tried a bit of desperation in the defeat. Steven Stamkos, who hadn’t played for 22 games, returned from the surgery on the blood clot in his shoulder. However, he was able to play only 11 minutes. He had two shots but no points.

“He’s an extremely important player on our team,” Cooper said. “We weren’t quite sure when this was going to happen, but a decision was made that he could play for Game 7. It was an emotional boost for all of us. The guys were really excited to have him back, and I thought he did a great job.”

Once again, the Lightning was outplayed by the Penguins. Pittsburgh got off 39 more shots — they had 269 in the series, just short of 40 per game. The Lightning, on the other hand, had fewer than 10 shots in five of its final six periods.

“They’re fast, and so if we’re playing the game a little too slow and not executing, it’s hard when they’re playing “D” fast and they’re right on you,” Cooper said. “And I thought, you know, we got caught — when we were in those situations where we probably should have shot, we passed, and we passed when we probably should have shot. We kind of got caught in-between on a lot of occasions.

They play ‘D’ well. They play hard — and the other thing is they block a lot of shots, and that was evident this whole series, and the amount of shot blocks were just incredible, just couldn’t get them through. When you’re one and done all the time because the shot is blocked and bouncing out of the zone or they’re getting a rebound, it’s tough to generate offense.”

Bryan Rust scored the first Pittsburgh game, but Jonathan Drouin scored for the Lightning to tie the game at 1-1. Thirty seconds after, however, Rust scored again to provide the Penguins with their final margin.

Vasilevskiy stopped 37 shots in defeat.

“He was the rock back there, especially talk about the chances and shots they had,” Cooper said. “He was incredible for us. Obviously, he’s got a bright, bright future.”

Gary Shelton is one of the most recognized and honored sportswriters in the history of the state. He has won the APSE's national columnist of the year twice and finished in the top 10 eight times. He was named the Florida Sportswriter of the Year six times. Gary joined SaintPetersBlog in the spring, helping to bring a sports presence to the website. Over his time in sports writing, Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls, 10 Olympics, Final Fours, Masters, Wimbledons and college national championships. He was there when the Bucs won a Super Bowl, when the Lightning won a Stanley Cup and when the Rays went to a World Series. He has seen Florida, FSU and Miami all win national championships, and he covered Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden and Don Shula along the way. He and his wife Janet have four children: Eric, Kevin, K.C. and Tori. To contact, visit garysheltonsports@gmail.com.

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