When will the Lightning run out of wait-til-next-years?

Jon Cooper and the Tampa Bay Lightning players are seen on the bench in the final minutes in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final Wednesday, May 23, 2018 in Tampa. DIRK SHADD   |   Times
Jon Cooper and the Tampa Bay Lightning players are seen on the bench in the final minutes in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final Wednesday, May 23, 2018 in Tampa. DIRK SHADD | Times
Published May 24 2018
Updated May 24 2018

TAMPA — Disbelief will eventually give way to acceptance.

The Lightning isn't there yet.

It isn't there yet in a lot of ways.

Will it ever be?

Just wondering.

Really, what guarantees are there?

Late Wednesday, Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, free at last, trundled down a hallway at Amalie Arena with the Prince of Wales Trophy in his hands as if carrying a baby in a blanket. Ovechkin's wait was over. Earlier, in the losing dressing room, hushed tones and even shock were the rule.

"We worked very hard for three rounds. And now it's over," Lightning captain Steve Stamkos said after the shattering 4-0 Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference final. "It's just a very disappointing, gut-wrenching feeling. I know how special this group was."

"It's tough," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said.

This team led the NHL is goals in the regular season. It had a budding star in goal in Andrei Vasilevskiy. It had breakout players like Brayden Point. General manager Steve Yzerman and coach Jon Cooper shored up the defense with veterans like Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh. A special group. Seemingly nothing was left to chance.

And it didn't matter.

Which raises the question: Will it matter next year?

That might have been on some Lightning fans' minds as they fled the arena long before Game 7 was over. Maybe they're a tad spoiled. Their team went to the Cup final in 2015. It has made three of the past four conference finals, the third coming this season, after the Lightning missed the playoffs last year. Are things that bad? You'd prefer maybe to be the Buffalo Sabres?

"The window isn't closed," Stamkos said. "This group is way too talented and still very young. We have a guy like (Vasilevskiy). The window is never closed."

"The one thing about Steve Yzerman is he seems to keep our window open every year," Cooper said. "That's what makes him a hell of a GM. No, I don't think the window will ever be closed with this team."

But an open window doesn't matter if you never climb through it.

Think Bucs fans don't know that? Their team hasn't come close to the Super Bowl, won so much as one playoff game in 15 years. The Rays, despite a World Series 10 years ago, and playoff runs, and Game 162, have never really come close again.

True, the Lightning has a different feel to it. Stamkos is just 28 and will probably score 500 NHL goals. Hedman, 27, is constantly ascending. He is likely about to win the Norris Trophy, presented to the league's top defenseman. Scoring star Nikita Kucherov is only 24. Point is just 22. Vasilevskiy is 23. Mikhail Sergachev is 19.

Even so, the Lightning hoisting the Stanley Cup in 2004 grows larger in stature and memory. It was hard to do then, and it looks harder to do now. It doesn't help when you don't show up when it matters.

"Winning a Stanley Cup is difficult," said Yzerman, who didn't lift hockey's greatest prize for Detroit until his 14th season. "There's no clear path to it. Part of the process is working through various situations, including this year's playoffs. … Winning it early in your career is great, but the reality for a majority of players is that it's a struggle to get there."

You can wait on next year all you want, but even the best teams can run out of next years.

What if this is it for Cooper and his team?

It was worth considering on the day after.

The Lightning needs to get better. Right now it's the team that had the most points in the Eastern Conference but couldn't close the deal. The Capitals know that feeling all too well. Ovechkin and his crew have been building — and suffering — for more than a decade. They have finally punched on through. But they still must topple upstart Vegas in the final.

But the Lightning couldn't stay with the Caps in this series, especially 5-on-5. It basically went the last eight periods of this series without a goal.

Who is to say it will better next time, that Stamkos and Kucherov's tanks won't run empty at a critical moment during a run? That's what happened this time.

You just never know.

And this won't be the same team next year. Yzerman won't blow it up, nor should he, but there will be turnover. Older players will give way to younger ones. The Lightning has real talent in its system. Yzerman built this thing to last.

But we won't know until we know, will we?

Do you really want to be the new Capitals?

Wednesday night ended the Lightning's season. Ovechkin was left holding a trophy. The Lightning was left holding the bag. Ovechkin's long road to the final might be an abject lesson for Stamkos, Hedman and the Lightning. You just keep plugging.

This roster brims with talent and promise. Yzerman has made sure of that. And three conference finals in four years doesn't sound like a team stuck in a rut. The Lightning might be right back here next season. Then again, it might not.

You just never know.

"I'm damn proud of them," Cooper said late Wednesday. "To not make the playoffs, then get to Game 7 of the conference final … for us to be down 2-0 at home (in the final) and win three in a row against them … yeah, when you get this far, for sure you're thinking is your year."

It wasn't.

Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.