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The major casualty in the Lightning’s epic fold

Commentary: Why we can never trust these guys again.
Jan Rutta (44) touches the helmet of goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) as Yanni Gourde (37), center, Ryan Callahan (24), and J.T. Miller (10) watch as Columbus Blue Jackets players celebrate their 7-3 over the Lightning after Game 4 in the first round of the Stanley Cup Finals Tuesday, April 16, 2019 in Columbus. DIRK SHADD | Times
Published Apr. 17

TAMPA — Do you feel betrayed?

Do you feel double-crossed?

Or do you feel just plain stupid?

The Tampa Bay Lightning, the now extremely former best hockey team on the planet, filled with our fantasy rocket boys, has corkscrewed into oblivion. The first team in the playoffs is the first team out.

Do you feel taken?

Do you feel swindled?

Glengarry Glen Lightning.

Second prize: set of steak knives.

Third prize: You’re a loser.

It was a rip-off, the whole thing, all 62 of those record-tying wins. We couldn’t take our eyes off Jon Cooper and his players. Now we don’t want to see them for a great long while and when we do, we won’t trust them, we won’t trust any of it. This will stay with us for a long time.

Why should we believe anything anymore?

That was the real casualty Tuesday as the Lightning was swept away by the Columbus Blue Jackets, looking perfectly hapless as those empty-net goals piled up at the end.

What a choke.

What a fold.

We’re lucky this is the NHL, not the NFL, or we’d be Buffalo.

As it is, say hello to the new Washington Capitals. The old Washington Capitals are chasing a second consecutive Stanley Cup, so someone has to wear the horns of shame. The Lightning is elected. Lifetime appointment until it says different and does something about it.

Do you feel swindled?

Do you feel disgusted?

I drank the Kool-Aid. There are now geniuses out there who claim there were obvious signs that this was going to happen. That is hogwash. Yes, I wondered if the Lightning was heavy enough, if its speed and skill could handle playoff life at close quarters.

But it stood pat, behind rookie GM Julie Brisebois, and got waxed. Steve Yzerman wouldn’t have helped win this thing. Cooper didn’t feel the need to change his team’s DNA, as he put it, as the Lightning began. From DNA to DOA, Cooper got schooled by John Tortorella, still the only coach to win a Cup in Tampa Bay.

Do you feel taken?

Do you feel robbed?

I came to believe this team, particularly its core group, had learned from its experiences over the last five years. That coming close passed for an education.

What we learned is that the Lightning had not learned at all. What we learned is the simple fact that this team was not tough enough, which it proved when it blew that 3-0 lead against Columbus in Game 1. This series ended then and there.

This season was such a hay ride that when it hit a bump, a real bump, no one had an answer.

I couldn’t see how any playoff team could beat Cooper’s team four times in two weeks.

It lost four times in six days.

Do you feel cheated?

Do you feel like a fool?

A healthy Victor Hedman probably would not have made a difference. A locked-in Andrei Vasilevskiy probably would not have made a difference.

Maybe it wasn’t meant to be was meant to be.

Maybe Steven Stamkos never catches up to the Cup. Maybe Nikita Kucherov, the best player in the league, will never not prefer being a spoiled brat when the chips are downs. Maybe these guys aren’t true winners.

This team had an emptiness to its heart. The Lightning was more physical this season, but in six days proved it wasn’t mentally ready to be a champion, not even close.

Most of the stars will return, along with the coach, but it has dawned on us: Why will next year be any different?

Why believe when the Lightning roll out another great regular seasons, when the wins pile up?

The Lightning has lost the benefit of the doubt.

It will insist it has learned a lesson, again.

Until it really does learn, all its talk, all its press clippings, all the records amount to a pile of something, and it’s not wins.

Until then, these guys are losers.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly

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