Tampa Bay's magical run, which took the franchise and its fan base on another electrifying postseason ride, came to a dramatic end on Friday, one victory and one goal short of reaching the Stanley Cup finals for the second time in franchise history.
Despite a heroic performance from 41-year-old goaltender Dwayne Roloson, his 37 saves were not enough to hold off the Bruins as the one that got past him proved to be the only one Boston needed to knock off Tampa Bay 1-0 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals in front of 17,565 fans.
Nathan Horton scored the only goal of the game with 7:33 remaining in the game to send Boston to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1990 and deny Tampa Bay its first trip since 2004.
Tim Thomas stopped all 24 shots he faced for his second shutout of the series.
"I thought we left it out there, no doubt about it. We knew it was going to be a tight game and obviously it's a 1-0 game so if you get a bounce here or there, you never know," Lightning winger Marty St. Louis said. "It just wasn't meant to be."
Tampa Bay's first postseason appearance in four years proved to be the second-best showing in franchise history. It started on April 13 with a game in Pittsburgh. Along the way, the Lightning electrified fans with a dramatic comeback from down 3-1 in the series against the playoff-savvy Penguins. That was followed by a four-game sweep of top-seeded Washington in the second round that sent Tampa Bay to it second conference finals appearance.
And in an evenly matched series, with both teams holding identical records through the regular season and the first 17 games of the playoffs, the 100th game each team played came down to one goal, one mistake and one key moment that decided the outcome.
After playing two scoreless periods, the first time since 1950 that a Game 7 in the conference finals or later remained without a goal through 40 minutes of play.
Andrew Ference, who was on the losing end for Calgary in a Game 7 meeting against Tampa Bay in the 2004 Stanley Cup finals, found a seam through Tampa Bay's tight defensive neutral zone structure to spring David Krejci into the offensive zone. As Krejci came across the blue line, Horton made his way toward the front of the net past Steven Stamkos and in front of Mattias Ohlund. The former Florida Panthers forward was able to tap in the puck past Roloson with 7:33 left in the game.
"It was for who was going to make that one mistake, and it was us,'' Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "And I just looked at the clip five times now, and it's hard to look at, because you know it's one little defensive mistake. And if you don't make it, if they make one, if you capitalize on one of your chances, you know, we're all happy, but in the end, they deserve that goal. They made it happen.''
The Lightning, meanwhile, couldn't make enough happen at the other end, putting a series-low 24 shots on Thomas, who was not called on often to keep the Bruins in the game. Boston stifled Tampa Bay through the neutral zone, limiting the Lightning's speed, and blocked 17 shots, including seven in the third period. And when the Bruins opened the scoring, Tampa Bay was snuffed out of trying to find that tying goal to keep the postseason drive alive.
"We knew that guys were battling as hard as they could, we just couldn't seem to muster much,'' said center Steven Stamkos, who still had blood dripping from his nose after a puck struck him in his shield, taking a chunk out of his nose and forcing him to play the remainder of the game with a full face shield. "We had a little breakdown in our system (on the winning goal), so that's tough. But it's over with now and it was a good effort.''
But just not enough to keep the season alive, a season that far exceeded expectations for a franchise that finished 30th, 29th and 25th respectively in the previous three years.
"We can look ourselves in the mirror and be proud of what we have done this year,'' St. Louis said. "We came one game from being in the Stanley Cup finals, so there is a lot to build on. I am proud of everybody. Obviously, it's disappointing to be on the losing end, but it has been a great year for the Lightning.''
Tribune's 3 Stars
1. Bruins G Tim Thomas – Stopped all 24 shots he faced to pitch a shutout for the second time in the series and send the Bruins to the Stanley Cup finals.
2. Lightning G Dwayne Roloson – Made more quality saves among his 37 stops than his counterpart, but fell one save short.
3. Bruins RW Nathan Horton – His goal was the difference-maker in the third, lifting Boston to the 1-0 victory.