TAMPA — This was not merely a loss, it felt more like a reckoning.
And while it has been a long time coming, the swiftness and finality of Monday night’s Game 4 collapse will live beside the most painful and cruel losses of any franchise in any sport in Tampa Bay history.
It was that stunning. That unlikely. That disheartening.
A Lightning team that used to wear its bravado like a ragged crown was humbled and humiliated in a 5-4 overtime loss to Toronto that puts Tampa Bay on the brink of a first-round elimination in the NHL playoffs after three consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup Final.
The Lightning had a 4-1 lead with a little more than 10 minutes remaining in the third period before surrendering three consecutive goals in 380 seconds.
Ponder that for a moment. The team that tore through the 2020 postseason and raised the Stanley Cup without ever facing an elimination game lost a three-goal lead as quickly as a beer run. The team that lifted the Stanley Cup again in 2021 lost a gut check against a group often derided as chokers. The team that made a third consecutive run at the Stanley Cup in 2022 lost its well-earned aura in a meltdown that will surely be talked about for weeks, and maybe years, to come.
All in 380 seconds.
“That’s a good team over there, and they were pushing, they were making plays,” Lightning forward Anthony Cirelli said. “They were playing with the puck a lot, and that’s on us. We’ve got to be better there and kind of have a reset. Those are games that we can’t (let) slip away.”
The idea that Toronto is up 3-1 in the series is not the shocking part of this melodrama. The Leafs were the better team in the regular season, and the favorite coming into the series.
And for all its accomplishments the past three seasons, Tampa Bay is a team that has been fighting the natural decline of salary-cap defections, injuries and age. Only the heartiest of fans would have expected another Stanley Cup appearance this summer.
But I’m not sure anyone expected this.
Not from this team. Not out of this culture. Not from a group that coach Jon Cooper had just called “gutty” a few days ago.
In the first 29 years of the franchise, the Lightning were 81-9 when going into the third period with a lead in the postseason. They are now 0-2 in the last 48 hours. And, before Game 4 on Monday night, they had never blown a three-goal lead in the third period of a playoff game.
Even the monumental collapse against Columbus in Game 1 of the first round in 2019 took more than 30 minutes to unfold.
Not 380 seconds.
Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene
Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
“I think we’ve got to look at the big picture here and say we are still coming to the rink,” Cooper said Monday night. “So, the season is not done yet.”
That is true. And hockey is the one sport that seems to breed unlikely comebacks. In just the last decade, there have been seven teams that have come back from 3-1 deficits. The Lightning did it themselves in 2011 when they won three in a row, including Game 7 on the road, in the conference quarterfinals against Pittsburgh.
But this feels like a different kind of story. For the most part, the Lightning have been the better team in three of the four games. They blew the Leafs out in Game 1, they dominated most of Game 3 and they were 10 minutes away from winning in a rout in Game 4.
The idea that they only have one win to show for all of that splendid hockey is jarring. And it has given the Leafs the confidence they had lacked in so many postseason disappointments of recent seasons.
“We’re a really good team,” said Alex Killorn, who scored two goals in Game 4. “So if we can be consistent throughout a whole game, I like our chances.”
Cooper has often described the NHL regular season as an 82-game dress rehearsal for the playoffs, and the Lightning played that way for long stretches of 2022-23. It was as if they had convinced themselves they had the formula to win in the playoffs and they would be a different team when the bright lights came on.
And, in some ways, that’s been true. They have played smart hockey. They have played intense hockey. They have played damn good hockey.
But they have not had the same grit and determination that made recent seasons so special.
At least not for an entire 60-minute game.
At least not for 380 seconds in Game 4.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.com.
• • •
Sign up for Lightning Strikes, a weekly newsletter from Bolts beat writer Eduardo A. Encina that brings you closer to the ice.