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A special Lightning season ends with disappointment and frustration

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Sports. Sometimes they’re bad.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Columbus Blue Jackets - Game Four Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t want to write this article. I would prefer to just shift focus to the offseason without acknowledging how the season ended. A lot of people had a lot of jokes about the team’s tweet after game four. And I get it from the perspective of a neutral fan. But as a fan of the team, I’ll be honest again, I appreciated it.

Because this shit sucked.

I’m gonna get the part no one wants to hear out of the way first. According to the numbers, the Lightning did not deserve to get swept. They should’ve won game one. They played well enough to win games three and four. I’m not going to rehash everything but you can take this piece from before game four and add the following.

Why, no seriously, why

The Lightning were the better team in the final game. Not by as much as we got used to seeing them be the better team during the regular season. They only had a slight edge instead of being dominant. And once again, that wasn’t enough. Sergei Bobrovsky outplayed Andrei Vasilevskiy and that made the difference. Because when you cut the game that close in between the nets, the game will be decided by finishing and goaltending. The Lightning won games like that all year.

They could not win a single one to save their postseason.

That was the story of the first round. Columbus matched the Lightning punch for punch. You can read more about that from Alison Lukan at The Athletic here. The Jackets turned a team that steamrolled through the regular season into one that had to give maximum effort just to break even. Even so, if the goaltending was as good as it was during the regular season, the Lightning would still be playing. If the shooting was as good as it was during the regular season, the Lightning would still be playing.

But none of that happened. And so the Lightning aren’t playing anymore this season.

Of the four major North American sports, hockey is the most susceptible to shocking upsets like this. Seven games isn’t nearly enough to ensure the best team wins. According to research from Michael Lopez, two NHL teams would have to play 51 games to have the same confidence that the best team won as when two NBA teams play seven games. So these things are going to happen from time to time. Unfortunately, this year it happened to us.

That isn’t to say the Lightning had no control and just got unlucky. They played to a stalemate against the Jackets. Had they played better, they would have made this outcome less likely. But they didn’t do that. They let the games be so close that small variations in shooting and save percentage would determine the outcomes. And this is the result.

We may find out that the Jackets are better than we thought. They played great at the end of the regular season. Perhaps they needed some time to adjust to all the changes after the trade deadline and are now much better than their regular season record shows. They certainly looked much better than the team the Lightning shellacked 17-3 in three regular season meetings prior to the trade deadline.

But whatever the case, the season is over. The Lightning played worse than expected, suffered injuries, and had their best player get suspended for a game. The Jackets played better than expected, got better goaltending, and probably better coaching. For all the talk about heart and effort and whatever else, it really is as simple as the previous two sentences.

Is massive change the answer?

The reaction has been as expected. Fans are frustrated, angry, disappointed. Understandably so. This team has done an impressive job of embedding itself in the Tampa community and cultivating what feels like a real relationship between it and its fans. So when it flames out so spectacularly, people take that personally. They a feel a part of the failure. It’s not “they failed.” It’s “we failed.”

I’ve seen calls for nearly every type of change. Jon Cooper needs to be fired. Core players need to be traded. Julien BriseBois should be fired. I’ve seen people saying they won’t follow the team next year. Or at least won’t do so until the playoffs because what’s the point of investing in the regular season?

I suspect most of the harsher sentiments will fade in the coming weeks. Fans will probably take a needed break from the team. But those who are interested in the draft and free agency will slowly start to come back and pay attention. They’ll remember that the Lightning have been one of the best-managed teams in the league and BriseBois should get a fair shot to make his mark on the roster. He’s been in Tampa for a while but this will be his first summer in charge.

Jon Cooper just signed a multi-year extension. He likely isn’t going anywhere. Maybe if Joel Quenneville hadn’t signed with the Panthers after the regular season, we’d have a real debate. But with him no longer an option, no coaching candidate on the market looks like an upgrade on Cooper, who has been one of the best in the NHL during his tenure.

The core of the team probably won’t change in a meaningful way. The bottom half of the blue line will be remade. Braydon Coburn, Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi, and Jan Rutta are all free agents. Expect two of them at most to be back. Ryan Callahan will probably play his last season somewhere else. If the front office wants to be more aggressive, maybe the team trades a player like J.T. Miller or Yanni Gourde to make more room for another free agent. But the top of the roster will look largely the same.

For fans, this might not feel like enough. The only thing in the short term that would lift the weight of the first round sweep would be massive change. Something to completely change the dynamic of the team and make next season feel distinctly different from this one.

The problem is that different doesn’t mean better. And for a team that was as good as the Lightning this year, different would almost certainly mean worse. So while a big change might feel good now, it wouldn’t feel good in October when a worse team takes the ice.

Change for the sake of change seems great immediately following an unexpected disappointment. But usually, the further one gets from that initial disappointment, the more apparent it becomes that the change served only to alleviate the frustration as opposed to preventing the disappointment from happening again. And in lots of cases, it actually ends up making a repeat more likely.

This is the challenge the Lightning front office faces this summer. They have to process the loss to Columbus. They can’t ignore it. They need to isolate the small amount they can learn about the team from those four games.

They were stymied in that series in a way they hadn’t been all season. They need to understand which parts were under their control and how to fix it moving forward. That requires discipline to realize they can’t control things like shooting and save percentage in small samples. But they can control things like tactical adjustments and taking too many penalties. So figure out what needs to be addressed and address it while accepting the things they can’t control. Leave it to postseason hockey to make me write a 1200 word version of the serenity prayer but here we are.

For us here at Raw Charge, we’ll officially start our offseason coverage next week. We’ll be all in on the Syracuse Crunch as they start their playoff run. We’ll keep up with the Solar Bears too. For the Lightning, we’ll start with player grades and then transition into the draft and free agency.

We’ve seen the passion of this fanbase in the past few days. It hasn’t always been pretty but it has been real.

Thank you for following along all season and we hope you’ll stick around as we go through the next few months preparing to do this all again starting in October.