TAMPA -- Ville Nieminen was fighting for the Stanley Cup but he was also playing for pride.
Last night, with the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrating its first Stanley Cup title just down the hallway, Nieminen insisted the Calgary Flames were winners, too.
Despite falling short in the most improbable championship run imaginable, the players, Nieminen said, worked their hearts out and achieved more than even they had dreamed.
"It's the toughest day in my life but after Game 6 (in Calgary) we left the rink as a proud hockey club. We came to Tampa as a proud hockey club and we will leave this place as a proud hockey club," the Finnish winger whispered, his eyes welling with tears.
"You can talk all about fatigue and legs and things like that. We were playing with our hearts on our sleeves but it was not enough tonight."
Nobody played with more emotion than the 26-year-old Nieminen, who often looks like a demolition derby driver trying to parallel park.
In Round 2, he was suspended one game for crashing into Detroit goalie Curtis Joseph while a hit from behind on Lightning star Vincent Lecavalier also cost him a one-game suspension in the Stanley Cup final.
Nieminen suggested last night the Lightning defence won the game by shutting down the Flames forwards, forcing them to play on the perimeter.
"The first two periods, Tampa's defence locked us out, they kept us outside. That's a great hockey club and they shut us down," said Nieminen, who collected eight points through 24 playoff games despite being kept off the scoresheet last night.
The Flames entered the playoffs two months ago seeded sixth in the Western Conference -- their first playoff appearance in seven seasons. Nieminen said the club is destined to be a perennial playoff performer with its current group of players, tweaked and moulded by GM-head coach Darryl Sutter, who acquired the flashy winger from Chicago in February.
"I feel that we showed people that we're a proud hockey club, a proud organization and there's a lot more to come in the future," Nieminen insisted.
"We showed each and every night that we wear our hearts on our sleeves and that's always a good sign of a great hockey club.
"Our hockey team is built on playing with the heart, with our emotion and that emotion is not going to go away.
"There's a lot more to come in the future."
Niemo finds silver lining
DAN TOTH -- Calgary Sun
, Last Updated: 2:32 PM ET