TAMPA — The season has ended, and that is regrettable.
What’s far more worrisome is the possibility that an era was vanquished with it.
If you had an uneasy feeling in your gut while watching the Lightning lose 2-1 in overtime of Game 6 against Toronto on Saturday night, that faraway concern might explain it. As if the inevitability of so many nights on ice had finally run down this team of grinders and stars.
Oh, they still have skill. They still have polish, fight and verve. Just not in the abundance of days past. And now, after nine years of superb hockey, you can’t help but wonder if the window has finally come close enough to closing that it will be hard to squeeze through again.
Not that the Lightning went down without a fight against the Maple Leafs in this series. They outplayed Toronto for long stretches, taking a lead into the third period of four games and coming from behind Saturday night to force an overtime in a fifth game.
But whatever separates champions from hopefuls was missing. Whatever sent the Lightning dancing into the night in 2020 and 2021 was lacking at critical moments in Games 3, 4 and 6 against Toronto.
You could say it was a fluke that John Tavares’ winning shot in Game 6 ricocheted off Lightning defenseman Darren Raddysh’s skate and into the net, but it can’t be coincidence that the three overtime games in the series ended with group hugs for Toronto.
Those moments used to be routine for the Lightning, and they were in short supply the past two weeks. And it’s hard not to wonder if losing Ryan McDonagh, Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman, Tyler Johnson and others in recent offseasons has taken a greater toll than the Lightning care to admit.
“This team has been amazing for a decade,” said Lightning forward Pat Maroon. “They’ve proven to be winners; they’ve proven they could continue to make the playoffs. I think when you make deep runs in the playoffs so many times, there’s a reason that you’re on top. And I think this team is still on top.
“It just sucks right now, because we did lay it all out there, we did everything we could to win this game. Unfortunately, (the Maple Leafs) got the bounce (Saturday) off the skate and it went in. There’s nothing we can do about it now.”
No matter how you try to spin it, the demise of this season is unlike any we’ve seen in a while around here. It’s nothing like last summer, when the Lightning came within two victories of another Stanley Cup. And it’s not comparable to 2019, when the crash against Columbus led to an unmistakable sense of unfinished business.
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This loss to Toronto invokes neither pride nor anger. Instead, it feels more like fear. Like sorrow. Fear that a reign that began in 2015 has reached an end, and sorrow in knowing we’re not likely to see that level of domination in Tampa Bay again.
And domination is the correct word. The Lightning have won more games and scored more goals than any other team in the NHL the past nine years. They also have won about 50 more postseason games than any other team and reached the conference final six times, the Stanley Cup final four times and won two Cups.
In the NHL’s salary-cap era, that is a journey nearly as awe-inspiring as teams of yore in New York or Montreal or Edmonton.
“There’s 31 other teams in the league that would love to have our history here, in the last 10 years, five years, three years,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “That’s why this is difficult, because usually we’re on the other side of this press conference.”
Steven Stamkos said the Lightning played better in the first round against Toronto this month than they did in last year’s first-round series between the teams. Maybe that’s true.
But you look at the stat sheets and wonder if there wasn’t more Tampa Bay could have gotten out of its stars with so many close games in the series. The top three scorers for the Leafs in the regular season — Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander — combined for 27 points and a plus-10 rating in the series. The Lightning’s top three scorers — Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Stamkos — combined for 14 points and were minus-4.
Make what you will of that. You can say it was bad bounces, you can say it was a supporting-cast problem, you can say the Lightning’s highest-paid players did not hold up their end of the bargain, or you can say the toll of so many postseason games finally came due.
The reality is this:
Alex Killorn, Ian Cole, Corey Perry, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Brian Elliot all can be unrestricted free agents. Ross Colton, Tanner Jeannot and Mikey Eyssimont can be restricted free agents in line for raises. And that means a team that was not as well-rounded nor as dynamic in 2023 could see more defections come fall.
The Lightning did not win the Stanley Cup in 2023, and that’s a shame.
Now, after so many seasons of high expectations, it’s hard to know what to anticipate in 2024.
And that’s what really hurts.
Contact John Romano at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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