TAMPA — This one stings. And it will ache for a long time. Maybe forever in these parts.
Another chance for a Stanley Cup. Another disappointment. As the Lightning skated off the ice after losing Wednesday night's Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final, it was hard to recall a more somber ending in Lightning history.
The ending was so gloomy only because everything that happened before it looked so promising.
This felt like a season of destiny, a season that would end with captain Steven Stamkos lifting the Stanley Cup over his head. Almost as soon as it began, back in October, the Lightning quickly showed all the signs of a team that could win it all. Scoring and defense. Veteran leadership and energetic youth. An elite goalie, a smart head coach and a thrifty general manager.
The Lightning had it all.
Then came the playoffs and that confidence multiplied as the Lightning blitzed through the first two rounds. Why, only just a few days ago, all the Lightning had to do was win one of two games to get another crack at the Stanley Cup.
"When you get this far," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, "yeah, for sure you're thinking this is your year."
But it's not the Lightning's year. Again. For the second time in three years, the Lightning lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final. This time at home and this time 4-0 to the Caps. The game was closer than the score suggests.
Not that it matters. In fact, it doesn't matter at all. All that matters is the Lightning's season is over and it ended with a loss that was as dreary as the series itself. When it was over, Cooper hardly knew what to say to his players.
"It's a speech you don't prepare for because I didn't think this was going to happen," Cooper said. "It's an empty feeling."
Empty also explains the Lightning offense in the final two games. It didn't score a goal since Ryan Callahan's fluky goal 33 seconds into the second period of Game 5.
"You're not going to win this time of year when you don't score," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said.
Stamkos added one word when asked to described how it all crashed to an end: "Disappointing."
Ultimately, the Lightning got what it deserved. Tampa Bay earned every right to be where it was, but it also didn't deserve to win the series. The Caps were the better team.
Yet the Lightning almost pulled it off.
After laying an egg in Game 6, the Lightning had plenty of chances in Game 7. For the first two periods, Tampa Bay was all over the Caps. Victor Hedman hit a post. Yanni Gourde fanned on a puck in the crease. Alex Killorn had a breakaway. Brayden Point hit a post.
But the Lightning simply couldn't find a way to score.
"Give the Caps credit," Lightning defenseman Dan Girardi said. "They played a heck of a game."
Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman added, "They deserved to win the series."
Still, that doesn't make the ending any less heartbreaking for the Lightning.
This seemed to be the year.
So how do we know rate the Lightning season?
"I'm damn proud of them," Cooper said.
Clearly, it has given its fans way more good nights than bad. It has been one of the league's best teams all season, finishing with the best record in the Eastern Conference and the third-best record in the NHL. It won the first two rounds of the playoffs in five games each and, heading into Game 7 of the East final, was just a victory away from reaching the Stanley Cup final for the second time in four years.
The Lightning has been and will continue to be a championship contender.
But that's also part of the problem for some. The Lightning has been championship contenders and not championship winners.
"I feel like we had a good enough team to be where we were," Cooper said. "You go through these playoffs and I felt we could have won every game. … When you get to this point, the four teams that were left (in the conference finals) you could have flipped a coin and not sure who was going to win. It just (stinks) for us that we're not one of those teams that are left.
"It's just tough."
And it will be for a long time.