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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)
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 jromano@tampabay.com. Follow at @romano_tbtimes.

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