The sinking feeling set in after the Washington Capitals scored their second goal on Wednesday night. Until then, I was pretty certain that Lightning would figure something out an pull out a late victory. After all, that’s been their modus operandi for most of the season, right? Play well, slump a little, and then in the end get done what they needed to do.
Maybe they just ran out of gas or ran into a better team, but whatever the reason was they came up short this time. And for the second time in three seasons, they fall one win short of the Stanley Cup Finals.
There will be time to dissect why they lost, what their flaws are and what they need to do to fix those flaws. Now is not that time. I’m writing this at 12:30 in the morning following the Game 7 loss. It’s too soon for rational discourse. There isn’t separation from the event to be objective. What it is time for is a beer (or three), B.B.King playing in the background, and trying to type through the emotions that come with a big loss.
Does this loss hurt more than some of their other Game 7 losses? The gut-punch isn’t quite as bad, but this does leave me with way more doubt than some of their other losses. In 2011, the loss to the Bruins hurt, it hurt bad, but after so many years of bad teams there was a sense that we were all just happy to have made it that far. Surely, despite having a super old goalie, that was a young team on the rise that would be super good for many years to come.
Well that didn’t happen, and several years slipped by before Coach Jon Cooper and his merry band of Tampacuse players made it to the Stanley Cup Final. While there was no Game 7 in that series, the loss in Game 6 was pretty bad. But hey, it was the Finals against a juggernaut of a franchise. There was pride to be taken in that loss. The Lightning were an up-and-coming team with a great young core. They’d be back soon.
The next year in fact. Well, almost. This time it was against the Penguins that they fell short. A Game 7 loss to the eventual Stanley Cup Champs in their building. That’s a tough game to win and thanks to Brian freaking Rust they couldn’t do it. Still, what a team they had.
Then came the lost season.
This season they came out gangbusters. Now this was the team that was built to win it all. Solid goaltending. Multiple scoring threats. Explosive offense. A patchwork, but somewhat ok, defense. They won their conference in the regular season and then dispatched the upstart Devils and the menacing Bruins. Surely the Capitals and their history of coming up short wouldn’t be a problem.
So I viewed this series with a lot of optimism. Even after the Lightning punted the first two games of the series I wasn’t worried. The Lightning had this. And for a week it looked like they did. They won the next three games to put the Caps on the edge. Game six - it would be nice to win in their building, but surely Washington was going to bring everything including the kitchen sink to keep from being eliminated so a loss wasn’t that bad. The Lightning would win Game 7 at Amalie. No problem.
Then Ovechkin sent a puck past Andrei Vasilevskiy just a minute into the game. No problem. Still plenty of hockey left. But as the night wore on, the game never changed. The Caps took advantage of their openings and built on their lead. Every scoring chance for the Lightning seemed to end with Dave Mishkin saying “shot blocked by the [insert Washington player name here]” and time kept winding down. Then it was over. No dramatic collapse from the Caps or big comeback from the Lightning. The season was just...over.
There is a new feeling now that I’m on the opposite side of 40 years old. I’m starting realize that there is a chance that my favorite team might not win another title in my lifetime. My diet and lifestyle is not conducive to me living another 60 years [But you’re hiking a lot more nowadays! You could live another 60 years! - Acha]. I’m hoping for a solid 40 more before things start going downhill fast. Forty years isn’t that long in sports years (just ask the nearest Maple Leafs fan).
When you’re young you think a title is always just around the corner. They didn’t win this year? That’s ok, they can do it next year. As you age into middle and later parts of your life, those years start flying by a lot faster, and a team’s “window” for a championship seems shorter and shorter.
I once lived my life certain that I would die having seen every “Star Wars” movie ever made. I was also certain that I would see the Lightning win another Stanley Cup. Of all the teams I’m a fan of, they were the ones most likely to have a sustained run of success. Now it’s obvious that Disney is going to keep churning out “Star Wars” movies until the sun explodes and the Lightning came up just short when it mattered most.
Hopefully, the Lightning can prove me wrong. Maybe they aren’t the Atlanta Braves of the mid-1990s, destined to be the eternal runner-up while not tasting the glory of a championship. For those who may not follow baseball, the Braves won 14 consecutive division titles from 1991-2005 (a strike cancelled the 1994 season before the end of the season) but only walked away with one World Series.
Before I wrap this up let me comment about something that absolutely drives me nuts about being a fan of this team and sports in general. There is a certain sect of sports “fans” that seemingly can’t wait for their favorite team to lose.
They seem to get some sort of perverse pleasure in reveling in losses, especially in the playoffs. Before the post-game press conferences were completed they were popping up on Twitter with their chest-beating proclamations and “I told you this team can’t win the big one” boasts. Coach Cooper needs to be fired, Tyler Johnson should be traded, Steven Stamkos should be stripped of the “C”, and Alex Killorn should be fired into the moon.
Anyone who wants to criticize or question Steven Stamkos can promptly go [edited for language] right now. That man has fought his way back from two career-threatening injuries and a life-threatening procedure that left a pretty hefty scar on his neck to lead this team to the brink of the Stanley Cup Finals. You’re going to sit there on social media and questions his determination and leadership skills? There isn’t a player in that locker room that questions him as their leader. They know what he went through to get back on the ice put together his best season in five years.
Sure, go ahead and trade an 86-point player because he didn’t score in the last two games of a hard-fought series. You know who else didn’t score? The rest of the freakin’ team. Give credit to the Caps and their goalie instead of burning the Lightning roster to the ground.
There are legitimate criticisms of Coach Cooper. The productivity of certain players can be questioned, but why do it before the post-game press conferences are even over? What’s the point? I wonder if those folks even enjoy it when the team wins. Save your hot-fire takes for the day after at least. Trust me, they’ll keep.