TAMPA — The Lightning's dream season ended late Wednesday with the final horn, or, if you prefer, early in the second period of Game 5, when it scored its last goal of the Eastern Conference final.
How about that? The team with the most regular-season goals in the NHL was blanked over nearly the final eight periods of the final against the Capital.
So the Lightning's attempt at a dream season ended with a whimper, culminating with a 4-0 loss to the Capitals in Game 7.
"Very disappointing," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "When you know the Stanley Cup final is on the other side of this game and you can't get past it, it stings a little harder."
So it is the Capitals' dream season that continues with the second trip to the Cup final in franchise history. The first was in 1998.
Alex Ovechkin, who blistered a shot past Andrei Vasilevskiy just 62 seconds into the game for what stood as the winning goal, shook another postseason monkey off his back. The first came when the Capitals finally beat the Penguins in the conference semifinals. The second came when he got his team to the Cup final and a date with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.
"They got a (heck) of a team," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "They gave us everything we could handle and more, and I congratulate them."
The Capitals were the better team over the series, winning three times on the Lightning's home ice. Braden Holtby pitched shutouts in the final two games with his team facing elimination.
The Capitals were more physical, more opportunistic. They wore down the Lightning with their muscle and neutralized the Lightning's speed. They found a way to get the puck past Vasilevskiy.
And yet, the Lightning outplayed the Capitals for almost all of the first two periods of Game 7.
Ovechkin scored 1:02 into the game when he blasted one from the right of Vasilevskiy.
Not the best start for the Lightning, but not fatal, either. The Lightning talked Tuesday, the day after Game 6's 3-0 loss, about its "response" being one of the biggest keys to winning Game. 7. How do you respond when something goes wrong?
Well, the Lightning's response was a holding penalty on Brayden Point 57 seconds after Ovechkin's goal.
But the Lightning killed off that penalty, then came to life.
It went after Holtby in waves, and Holtby felt the heat. He blocked shots but left juicy rebounds in front of the net, golden chances for the Lightning.
But the Lightning could not get a stick on any of them.
It became even more maddening for the Lightning in the second period when it peppered Holtby with five shots in the first three minutes.
But Victor Hedman hit the crossbar.
Then Hedman skated in alone to the right of Holtby. He drew the goalie out of the net before feeding the puck into the crease, where it patiently waited for Yanni Gourde, who was crashing the net.
With nothing in his way and a yawning net, Gourde could not get his stick on the puck.
Alex Killorn had a breakaway, but Holtby was able to get enough of his right shoulder on the puck to turn it aside.
The Lightning had 45 shot attempts through two periods, but only 22 found the net. The Capitals blocked 10.
"If you were going to tell me after watching the two periods that we would be the team down 3-0, I would have said no way," Cooper said. "But we were, and that was tough, and I know from personal experience to get this far you need breaks to go your way. And I just felt we pressed and pressed and pressed, and they got the breaks they needed, and we didn't."
The Capitals, meanwhile, had 26 shot attempts through two periods, 15 of which found the net.
Two of those were from Andre Burakovsky, who scored his first two goals of the postseason.
The team with the best record in the East during the regular season, which steamrolled its way past the Devils and Bruins in the first two rounds and ripped off three straight wins against the Capitals after losing the first two games of the East final at home, dressed quietly and headed into the offseason.
What do you say to your team after an ending like the one the Lightning suffered?
"It's a speech you don't prepare for, because I didn't think this was going to happen," Cooper said. "It's tough to kind of bottle it into words right now because it's an empty feeling. We'll digest this and talk whenever but I'm proud of then, I'll tell you that. A team that didn't make the playoffs the year before and to get to Game 7 of the conference finals, it takes a lot of work. The guys put it in, and were almost rewarded for it."
Capitals 1 2 1 4
Lightning 0 0 0 0
First Period—1, Washington, Ovechkin 12 (Wilson, Kuznetsov), 1:02. Penalties—Point, TB, (holding), 1:59; Coburn, TB, (unsportsmanlike conduct), 12:59; Wilson, WSH, (unsportsmanlike conduct), 12:59; Coburn, TB, Major (fighting), 15:07; Wilson, WSH, Major (fighting), 15:07.
Second Period—2, Washington, Burakovsky 1, 8:59. 3, Washington, Burakovsky 2 (Carlson), 16:31. Penalties—None.
Third Period—4, Washington, Backstrom 4, 16:17. Penalties—Niskanen, WSH, (high sticking), 3:23; Kucherov, TB, (slashing), 19:52. Shots on Goal—Washington 9-6-8—23. Tampa Bay 10-12-7—29. Power-play opportunities—Washington 0 of 2; Tampa Bay 0 of 1. Goalies—Washington, Holtby 12-6 (29 shots-29 saves). Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 11-6 (22-19). A—19,092 (19,092). T—2:27. Referees—Wes McCauley, Kelly Sutherland. Linesmen—Derek Amell, Jonny Murray.