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Lightning becomes the disappointment all others will be measured against

Tampa Bay follows a historic regular season with a historic failure, becoming the NHL’s first Presidents’ Trophy winner ever swept in the first round.
Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) walks down the tunnel to the locker room after the Lightning's 7-3 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 4 in the first round of the Stanley Cup Finals Tuesday, April 16, 2019 in Columbus. (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) walks down the tunnel to the locker room after the Lightning's 7-3 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 4 in the first round of the Stanley Cup Finals Tuesday, April 16, 2019 in Columbus. (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Published Apr. 17
Updated Apr. 17

COLUMBUS, Ohio — It’s all over now, and yet it’s bound to live on.

It will be the disappointment that all others are measured against. It will be the cautionary sports tale every parent tells a wide-eyed child. It will forever be the epitome of heartbreak in Tampa Bay.

The Lightning skated into history Tuesday night when it was swept out of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs by the Columbus Blue Jackets after a season that once seemed bound for glory.

Tampa Bay finished the regular season one win away from being the most successful team the NHL had ever seen. Who would have guessed that Lightning team would never win another game?

“If we, down the road, win the Stanley Cup I’ll have no problem reconciling (this),’’ coach Jon Cooper said. “Right now, it’s tough.’’

There was no redemption to be found in a 7-3 Game 4 loss Tuesday, although it was the best showing of skill and heart Tampa Bay gave in the series.

And for sports fans in Tampa Bay, it was the final chapter in a whole new story of despair. In a way, it was as if an entire community was duped. For six months, the Lightning had you believing you were seeing something historic.

And in the end, it was all choke and mirrors.

We went from the most dominant regular season in Tampa Bay sports history to the most devastating postseason we’ll likely ever see.

“We didn’t really care about the regular season. I mean, obviously we cared, but we knew the playoffs were what mattered,’’ said forward Mathieu Joseph. “We didn’t accomplish the one thing we truly cared about, and that definitely stinks.

“No matter what else you do, it’s always the end that you remember.’’

Losing is one thing, collapsing is something entirely different. And this Lightning team will be synonymous with history’s swiftest downfalls.

No Presidents’ Trophy winner has ever been swept out of the first round of the playoffs, let alone one that tied the NHL’s record for victories. It’s like getting a perfect SAT score and then misspelling your name on a college application.

Lightning players wasted an opportunity. Wasted their own potential. Ultimately, they wasted a season’s worth of memories.

Because it’s hard to imagine looking back on this season with much warmth. Usually, a regular season shows the true depth of a team’s character. This one will feel like we chased fool’s goals.

And so these players are now the new Washington Capitals. Not the version that won the Stanley Cup last year, but the ones who were dismissed as underachievers for so many years before that.

The line between glory and infamy is a thin one. You cannot chase one without risking the other. And as the successes piled up in the regular season, so did the expectations for the postseason.

Which leaves us with this question:

Was it all a lie?

It’s hard to justify any argument that this 62-win team was among history’s greatest when it fell so easily and so completely to a team that qualified for the playoffs on the day before the season ended.

Granted, there are reasons this happened. Plausible, logical reasons. You just have to dig through a season’s worth of plaudits, records and awards to recognize them.

We thought Tampa Bay players were focused and relentless in the regular season, but never realized they were going full-tilt against teams that were only occasionally committed.

When another team and another coach — and fate cruelly left that up to former Lightning coach John Tortorella — had both the time and urgency to create a neutral zone strategy that would slow this offense down, Lightning players were completely unprepared to adjust.

“When you have the amount of points we had, it’s a blessing and a curse,’’ Cooper said. “You don’t play really any meaningful hockey for a long time and then all of the sudden you’ve got to amp it up. It’s not an excuse, it’s reality. That’s how it goes.

“And so you have a historic regular season the way we did and basically had a historic playoff in defeat.’’

Maybe it’s unfair to forever bathe this Lightning team in such a harsh light. Tampa Bay, after all, had a key injury to defenseman Victor Hedman. And it got no help from officials who deemed the Lightning committed a preponderance of the series’ penalties. But, in the end, those were not the major considerations in a sweep as lopsided as this one.

Lightning players basked in praise for the better part of six months, and now must live with the narrative that comes from a such a steep fall.

They looked for all the world like they had a date with destiny.

Yet when their moment arrived, Lightning players did not show up.

Contact John Romano at Follow at @romano_tbtimes.


  1. Tampa Bay Lightning trainer Tom Mulligan attends to right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) who was injured during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Washington Capitals, Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019, in Tampa, Fla. Lightning right wing Mathieu Joseph (7), center Brayden Point (21) and defenseman Erik Cernak (81) look on. [CHRIS O'MEARA  |  AP]
    Last year’s NHL MVP was injured blocking a shot early in the Lightning’s 5-2 loss Saturday
  2. Lightning coach Jon Cooper, left, said Andrei Vasilevskiy will start in goal for the Lightning Saturday night against Washington at Amalie Arena. [DIRK SHADD  |  Times]
    Braydon Coburn returned to the ice, but there’s no update on Tyler Johnson
  3. Twenty years after making his debut as an NHL coach with the Lightning, Steve Ludzik is in dire need of a liver transplant. After a Facebook post by his wife MaryAnn earlier this week, a flood of potential donors have come forward. A handful have been identified as possible matches, but more are still being sought. Call (416) 340-5400 for more information. [Times files]
    Once diagnosed with Parkinson’s during his brief tenure as Lightning coach from 1999-01, Steve Ludzik is now in the fight of his life.
  4. Andrei Vasilevskiy was back to his usual acrobatic maneuvers while stopping 27 of 29 shots Thursday night, including this second period save on Boston Bruins center Joakim Nordstrom (20) with Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak (81) helping. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  TImes]
    John Romano | Tampa Bay’s early-season struggles were matched by the goaltender, whose numbers were not as dominant as last season. In recent games, that seems to have changed.
  5. Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) beats Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask (40) during the second period of the game on Thursday, December 12, 2019, between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Boston Bruins at Amalie Arena in Tampa. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  TImes]
    The captain has a four-game goal streak and is one of the league’s hottest players this month.
  6. Bruins play-by-play broadcaster shared some thoughts during Thursday's game against the Lightning. [DIANA NEARHOS  |  TIMES]
    Three questions with Jack Edwards, the Boston Bruins’ legendary play-by-play broadcaster.
  7. The Lightning took on the Bruins at home on Thursday.
  8. Fans gather in Thunder Alley at Amalie Arena before the start of the 2019-2020 NHL season home opener between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers on Thursday, October 3, 2019, in Tampa. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    Bring a new, unwrapped toy to either (or both!) of the next two games
  9. Boston's David Pastrnak, left, and Washington's Alex Ovechkin were the NHL's top two goal-scorers through Tuesday's games. Both are coming to Tampa this week to face the Lightning at Amalie Arena.
    The Lightning face the NHL’s top two teams Thursday and Saturday
  10. The Lightning's Anthony Cirelli (71) and goalkeeper Andrei Vasilevskiy, right, watch the puck as the Panthers' Noel Acciari (55) defends during the second period on Tuesday in Sunrise. [LUIS M. ALVAREZ  |  AP]
    Tampa Bay doesn’t make costly mistakes and pays attention to details on defense, just like the team has been talking about.