It’s difficult to discuss the end of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s season right now. Even with some time to process their shut-out in Game 7, it seems like an impossible outcome for the Bolts. Not only were they outplayed by the Washington Capitals, they were completely shut down, held without a point in close to eight periods. Whenever they pushed play, the Capitals responded with more passion and drive, fueled by twenty years of disappointment.
In short, the Lightning just wasn’t good enough to win it all this year. Unfortunately, this pathetic ending will ruin what was an otherwise incredible season for the once-maligned Sun-Belt expansion team.
25th Anniversary Was a Success for Lightning
Coming into 2017-18, this season felt special. Not only were they celebrating their 25th anniversary, they were also hosting their second All-Star Game in franchise history. The Lightning was motivated heading into the season, having barely missed the playoffs in the year prior. For the first time in what felt like forever, everyone was healthy and ready to set the league on fire come opening night.
Early on, the stars seemed to align. The Lightning rolled through the first half of the season, scoring almost at will and setting the pace for wins in the league. By the time of the All-Star Game, the Bolts were a clear Stanley Cup contender, with players in contention for almost every major award.
Even though they slowed down in the second half, some major moments still occurred for the franchise. At the trade deadline, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman made arguably the biggest deadline splash in team history when he acquired Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller for a smattering of picks and prospects. In his first full season in goal, Andrei Vasilevskiy set multiple team records, including most wins and shutouts in a season, en route to a Vezina Trophy nomination.
These awards don’t include the nightly highlight-reel scores from All-Stars like Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Brayden Point. Almost every game was entertaining because you knew that no lead was safe from the Bolts. They could give up one or two goals, and easily answer with three of their own to win the game in the third period. This excitement helped propel the Lightning to record viewership across their networks and a greater foothold in the local Tampa sports market.
Capitals Loss Is a Set-Back, Not an End for Lightning
Their successful season is what makes the end so stunning. The team that won a division title and were the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time in 14 years folded like a house of cards when the lights were brightest. After finding ways to fight back in so many different circumstances throughout the year, they just couldn’t muster one last miracle to save their Stanley Cup dreams.
While the reaction to the greatest postseason melt-down in franchise history is going to be harsh, Yzerman knows that he can’t overreact. The core of the team is still one of the best in the NHL, and will only improve as players like McDonagh and Anthony Cirelli get a full offseason to acclimatise to the team. The Lightning also has a young and talented minor league team in the Syracuse Crunch, who will be producing the next wave of players ready to fight for NHL ice-time out of training camp.
While some changes need to be made this offseason (a pathetic penalty kill that haunted the team all year long will be of particular importance), burning the team down and starting new is not the answer. With some tweaks and fixes, the Lightning will come into the 2018-19 season as one of the teams to beat.
A Long Off-Season Awaits Lightning
The start of the 2018-19 season is a long way off. Once the crushing disappointment fades, take some time to look back on what the Lightning accomplished this year. Even if they didn’t reach their ultimate goal, there’s still a lot of accomplishments to be proud of. Not only was it a good regular season, it was one of the best in franchise history.
As some people say, ‘I’d rather lose in Game 7 of the Final than never have the opportunity to win it in the first place.’ The loss is still worth more to the Lightning than not making the postseason last year. The team will be back next season, with a new level of motivation after coming so close to their goal for the third time in four years.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.