It ends, not with the anticipation of the approaching postseason, but with the simple motion of a man switching off a locker room light.
It ends, not with the talk of how anything can happen in playoff hockey, but with the quiet click of a closing door.
It ends, not with the sudden disappointment of a team losing in the postseason, but with the fading footsteps of hockey players walking away from a season that was lost long ago.
The Lightning finishes up the disappointment Saturday night. In a game that means nothing, in a season that went nowhere, all that remains is that final punch of the clock. It's closing time, and it's about time.
Oh, what a bad season this was. It was a season of falling skates and fallen stars, a season of blown leads and battered reputations. It was last-place bad. Worse, it was Kokusai Green bad.
And now for the money question: Was it heads-should-roll bad?
Following a season such as this, why wouldn't an owner consider the tough questions? Why wouldn't he wonder how a Stanley Cup champion could fall so far and so fast? Why wouldn't he ponder the future of general manager Jay Feaster and coach John Tortorella?
After all, contracts are not made for life, and security is not meant for last place. If the issue is accountability, aren't the people running a franchise subject to the same scrutiny as those playing for it?
Yes, it is true that Feaster and Tortorella won a Stanley Cup together, and yes, that should count for something. So, too, should the underachievement that has followed.
Consider: The Lightning has lost 105 regular-season games in the three seasons since the Stanley Cup. That's the most of any Cup winner since the 1989-90 Edmonton Oilers, a team that let go of the last pieces of a dynasty then lost 121 times over the next three seasons. Of course, if you throw in the additional 20 overtime losses by the Lightning, this disappointment is even greater.
Consider: The Lightning has not won a playoff series in the three seasons since winning the Cup. Not since Montreal's champions of 1992-93 has that happened.
Start with Tortorella. Over his tenure, Tortorella has not only done the best coaching job in the history of the Lightning, you could argue that he has done the best coaching job in Tampa Bay sports history.
But, yeah, Tortorella's fingerprints are on this season, too. The Lightning had too many collapses this season for it not to reflect on the coach.
That said, I would bring him back. He lifted the Lightning out of the muck once before; I would give him a chance to do it again.
I know, I know. NHL teams change coaches all the time. Since Tortorella took over back in January of '01, there have been 98 different coaches in the league (not counting Roger Neilson and Al Arbour, who came back for brief stints just to get 1,000 games).
But Tortorella hasn't been in his job as long as Buffalo's Lindy Ruff. He hasn't been there as long as Nashville's Barry Trotz. He hasn't been there as long as Edmonton's Craig MacTavish or Minnesota's Jacques Lemaire. None of those guys has won a Stanley Cup with his current team.
It is harder to build a case for Feaster. The question is not whether Feaster is responsible for the Lightning being in last place; the question is whether he is the right choice to make certain it does not happen again.
Oh, there was a time, following the chaotic reign of Trader Rick Dudley, when Feaster was the perfect general manager for the Lightning. He recognized that it was a time for a pat hand, and because of it, he brought stability to a franchise that hadn't had any. That gave the Lightning's young stars a chance to develop.
Even in Feaster's best moments, however, changing the roster has never been his strength. If nothing else, the last three seasons show us that. So why wouldn't an owner consider a change?
Oh, given a potential owner who lacks principal and an old one who lacks interest, odds are that both Feaster and Tortorella will return. So, too, will the questions. Why have there been so many misses at goaltenders? At second-line scorers? Why aren't the minor leagues more productive? Who evaluates players around here, and how, and exactly why isn't it time the guys in charge of it were evaluated themselves?
Given the standings, it's also fair to ask: Who is going to clean up this mess?
It's a shame. When you look back on the Lightning's championship team, it seemed as if there were so much more to be had. Given the age of the Lightning's Cup champions, given the talent, it should have lasted longer.
Why didn't it?
That, too, is a question an owner should ask.