Going into Saturday night versus the Buffalo Sabres, the Bolts were gifted with a mish-mash of chances despite the fact that they were riddled with injuries and hurting. Buffalo had played the night before, being struck down by the Ottawa Senators. The Sabres weren't starting three key players, including Olympian Ryan Miller. Instead, they'd be starting Patrick Lalime, who has had a less-than-stellar season when starting in place of Miller.
The Lightning knew what it needed in this contest: two points. It didn't just need them; its collective post-season life depended on them. The Lightning had notched two surprising wins to its belt earlier in the week. First was a victory over the resurgent Carolina Hurricanes, ending a dismal stretch for the Bolts that saw them drop 12 of 14 contests.
Then was the improbable victory in Boston on Thursday night. It was only the fourth victory against the Bruins in Boston in the entire history of the franchise. The Bolts suffered injuries during the game, but they were still alive and seemed to have finally hit their stride.
And so goes the story of the Lightning season as a whole. All too often, just when it looks like the ship has been righted and they're going to contend, something like last Saturday happens. The Bolts go into an important game and instead of competing, they regress and recoil. They've achieved this feat of mediocrity too many times this season: the promise of finally turning the corner turns into falling flat on their faces when it counts the most.
Early in the season, when the Bolts followed up strong play with lackluster efforts, it was easy enough to write those contests off because it was early... There was time. There would be chances and the Lightning had the rest of the season yet to make a splash.
Case in point, after a rather middling first two months, the Lightning hosted the Rangers at home and played their most convincing game of the young season, defeating the Rags 5-1. This was promptly followed up with a grand collapse, going 1-8-2 over the next 11 games through mid December, mostly to Western Conference teams.
Then, in January, the pattern of not-ready-for-prime-time became evident again, this time when it mattered. The Bolts were coming off their "lights out" weekend in New Jersey and knocked off the Washington Capitals at Times Palace in a total drubbing, 7-4. Confidence was riding high that if they could defeat two division / conference leaders like the Devils and the Caps, surely the team was ready to outshine lesser competition?
But the Bolts took momentum and snuffed it out in style during back-to-back losses to the Panthers. It was a prime opportunity to stake a legitimate claim to contention and they failed to seize it.
They'd do this again just before the Olympic break as well. In the final weeks of January and the first week of February, the Bolts had accomplished an important winning stretch, going 9-1-1 over those three weeks. Before the Olympic break, the Bolts could have put a ribbon on their playoff drive by competing in the final three games of February.
Instead of competing, the Lightning ceded ground to the Bruins and Rangers while dropping all three of those remaining games. These losses would be part of the grander 2-11-1 streak that took the Lightning out of playoff contention over the past month.
The weakness of the Eastern Conference, where mediocrity abounds, had given the Lightning so many chances to stay in the race. Yet the pattern of the season said that every time the Lightning had realized an important victory, they were to follow it up with a lackluster effort at a crucial juncture.
Saturday's loss, even with excuses of injuries and the game-misconduct that robbed the team of its captain early on, should have been expected. What killed this season wasn't a lack of position players or offensive production; it was the lack of killer instinct and drive when it counted the most. The most dubious pattern of the 2009-10 Tampa Bay Lightning campaign was the lack of urgency.
Expecting wins down the road doesn't make up for lackluster efforts now. Expecting other contenders to fall by the wayside doesn't excuse from participating in their demise in the standings. Having all the skill and capabilities in the world doesn't forgive sub-par efforts, nor reward with post-season glory.