TAMPA — So is this how it ends? With a frame-by-frame breakdown of the fatal goal, as if Abraham Zapruder was filming from the grassy knoll?
After all the good times, all the memories, all the glory, are we supposed to raise our voices in collective anger? Is it possible the Lightning finally were done in by a conspiracy of silence?
Let’s hope not.
Let’s hope the ever-so-vague grievance coach Jon Cooper alluded to in his brief postgame news conference Wednesday night was just the frustrations of a man whose team may have finally run out of its endless supply of tomorrows.
Tampa Bay lost 3-2 in overtime to Colorado in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final, leaving the Lightning a single defeat away from the end of their reign atop the NHL.
That’s the headline. That’s the news. That’s the reality.
But the coming days could be filled with screengrabs, slow-motion videos and maniacal complaints that the Lightning were cheated out of a chance for a three-peat because the referees failed to blow a whistle when the Avalanche had too many players on the ice in the final moments.
“You know, I’ve been part of some heartbreaking losses and defeats,” Cooper said. “Been with a group that just fights, fights and fights. And they fought their way to a third Stanley Cup final in a row. And in a cap era when it’s so damn hard and the rules are put against you because the league wants parity.
“And I love that about the league. And that’s what makes it tougher … but this one is going to sting much more than others … just because it was taking on … it was potentially… I don’t know … It’s hard for me. It’s going to be hard for me to speak. I’ll speak with you (Thursday). You’re going to see what I mean when you see the winning goal. And my heart breaks for the players. Because we probably still should be playing.”
So is that what actually happened?
Yes? Probably? Possibly?
At least one version of video appears to show Nazem Kadri jumping on the ice several seconds before Nathan MacKinnon reaches the bench. Just as MacKinnon is stepping off the ice, Colorado players begin celebrating as Kadri scores the winning goal.
Even more damning was the official box score handed out by league workers in the moments before Cooper’s news conference. Every goal includes a list of players on the ice at the time it was scored.
On Kadri’s goal, there are seven players listed for the Avalanche. Obviously, that’s one more than allowed. The league later removed Erik Johnson’s number from the list of players on the ice in its online box score and announced in the media workroom that Johnson was not on the ice.
Frankly, that was a weak response by the NHL.
Between the confusion from the initial box score, the seeming video evidence and the whiff of an accusation from Cooper, the NHL should have addressed the controversy quickly.
Instead, it was after 1 a.m. when the league finally released a statement that said none of the on-ice officials saw too many men on the ice and the play is not subject to video review.
But the statement essentially leaves everyone hanging. The referees did not see too many men on the ice, but the league never says whether the initial call was correct.
And so the Avs have a cloud over their victory, the Lightning have bile in their throats and millions of fans are left wondering what the heck happened.
And that’s a crying shame. Because this was a great game and could have been a wonderful moment for two great teams.
And even though the Lightning lost, this night was everything you have always loved about this team. The skill, the determination, the selflessness and the fearlessness.
And if this is to be the end — if this is the final game of the season at Amalie Arena — it was a fitting farewell, even if the final moments ended in confusion.
If the Lightning fall short of a third consecutive title, it wasn’t for lack of trying. The owner spent money, the general manager made deadline trades, and the players left their hearts on the ice.
At some point, we may have just asked too much from them.
Getting this far without Brayden Point, your top goal-scorer from the past two postseasons, is impressive enough. Nikita Kucherov is also hurting, and Nick Paul isn’t entirely okay.
And then, as Game 4 progressed, the Lightning lost Erik Cernak. Anthony Cirelli also went down with a right arm injury and, when he returned, he could no longer take faceoffs.
“We’re grinding, we’re giving it our all, it’s certainly not for lack of effort,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “Like I said, it’s a sacrifice at this time of year. No one else outside the dressing room knows. Sometimes you think you know, but you don’t. It’s challenging this time of the year for both teams.
“You’ve got guys that are playing through a lot of stuff right now. Guys are just battling, and our group is going to battle.”
Did the Lightning deserve to lose Game 4? No, but only because they played so valiantly.
So did they get cheated out of a win in Game 4? No, not even if the Avs had too many men on the ice.
This game is played at breakneck speed, and the referees do their best to get every call right. If they missed this one, then so be it. There is always tomorrow.
Even if they are starting to run out for Tampa Bay.
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