And so it ends, this wild, wonderful ride of the overachievers who would not leave the rink.
It ends beneath an ugly scoreboard. It ends with the wrong team celebrating. It ends a long way from fans who still had some cheering left to do. It ends, as these things usually do, with slumped shoulders and grim faces and the dull ache of a team as it realizes its success is complete.
The Lightning lost Friday night,
The most surprising season in franchise history came to a sudden, solemn end.
Oh, this likable lot of dreamers lasted a lot longer than anyone suspected it would. For 18 games, and for 45 days, and for what must have been a thousand skipped heartbeats, the Lightning scrapped and scuffled from one shift to the next. Somewhere along the way, the players washed the tarnish off a franchise, and they rekindled a town's passion, and they made their sport matter again.
Still, they did not win. In the immediate aftermath of a 1-0 loss to Boston in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final, nothing else seemed to matter.
This is the way professional sports works. The better a team plays, and the closer it gets to a trophy, the worse is the sting that comes at the death of a season. No one is ever sorry to see a bad season end, after all. A bad team is like a bad tooth, and the quicker you can get rid of it, the better.
When a team is successful, however, you cannot help but notice the opportunity that was missed. A bounce here, a block there, and the Lightning could have won this series and advanced to the Stanley Cup final. For the players, and for those fans who have followed them through the lost years, part of this season will always be measured by the distance they didn't quite cover. One game. One goal. One gut-wrenching finale.
Eventually, however, the frustration of this final loss will fade, and the bigger picture will become clearer, and most of us will sum up the season in this way:
Wow, wasn't that fun while it lasted?
In the persistent fog of recent Lightning seasons, perhaps you had forgotten how terrific the NHL playoffs are. No other playoffs send you on such a ride. No other postseason demands so much physically, so much mentally and so much emotionally from its players and its fans. It is growing beards and fresh scars and maddening calls. It is a whirling collection of moments when you think your team can fly and others when you are certain it is going to crash.
When a team has not reached the playoffs for four years, when it has not won a series for seven, when it has been reduced to an afterthought, this season has been especially delicious. No one saw this coming. At the end of the regular season, most of Tampa Bay would have been satisfied with winning one playoff round, thrilled with two and amazed with three.
Think of it like this: If you do not count the 2003-04 championship season, this franchise had won 10 playoff games in its history. This team won 11 in six weeks.
Along the way, it had some moments. Didn't it?
Remember Marty St. Louis and his broken teeth back in the first playoff game against Pittsburgh. Remember Steven Stamkos and his bloody face Friday. Remember Sean Bergenheim coming from East Nowhere to star, and teammate Teddy Purcell from West Nowhere? Remember Dwayne Roloson, old Rip Van Goaltender, shining in the moments he was needed the most.
Remember Vinny Lecavalier, the kid who grew into the captain, stuffing in the overtime winner against Washington in Game 2? Remember Smitty's Game, where Mike Smith came into the game in goal, settled down his team and allowed it to tie the Boston series at two games each? Remember Victor Hedman, the kid learning as he goes? In particular, he has learned to duck during sucker-punch time.
Every night, every game, it seemed there was a different player to discuss. Simon Gagne. Eric Brewer. Steven Stamkos. Dominik Moore. Ryan Malone. And on and on. Remember them all. Remember Wayne Fleming, the assistant coach who had a brain tumor removed during the playoffs. Remember coming back from 3-1 against Pittsburgh. Remember sweeping the Capitals and reminding Washington that it was impossible to spell the word "collapse'' without "c-a-p-s"?
You know the truth? Tampa Bay needed every player, and it needed every moment. It was as if every game, every goal, wiped out another bad memory. There has been so much dysfunction for this franchise over the years. You know the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? Around here, their names are Takashi Okubo, Art Williams, Oren Koules and Len Barrie.
This is the season that changed everything. It was the season that restored the bond between a franchise and its fans. It was unexpected success for a community that needed to cheer. It was a promise from a new front office.
In Jeff Vinik, the Lightning finally has an owner who cares enough to want to win but who knows enough to stay out of the way of it. In Steve Yzerman, it finally has a general manager who has a knack for bringing in the right player at the right time. In Boucher, it has a coach who knows the difference in a team playing with fire or playing in a frenzy.
The result is that the Lightning suddenly looks smart enough, competitive enough, creative enough to keep this thing going for a while.
Once the disappointment of Friday night fades, perhaps even the players will appreciate how important this year was for a franchise.
If the Lightning is going to lift a Stanley Cup next year, or the year after, or anytime soon, this will be the year when it began.
Remember it fondly. And by the way, don't expect it to be seven more years until the Lightning wins another playoff series.
Remember, most of all, it felt like a start.