Wednesday, 4 a.m.
It felt like goodnight. It felt like time to turn the lights off. It felt cold and empty and meaningless.
Oh, yes. You can still talk about mathematical possibilities if you wish. The Tampa Bay Lightning remain, amazingly, only four points out of the playoff chase. They have 10 games left. There is still time for the Rescue Rangers to come charging over the hill.
But, no, it doesn't feel fuzzy, does it. It feels dank and dark and something is growling in the corner. It feels lonely and lost and like a rock plunging in water.
It feels like the Lightning, firming its ground on the wrong side of the post-season.
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How does the Lightning lose this one? You're playing the second-worst team in the NHL. You somehow take a lead in the third period. You are at home. There is must all over your game.
And you lose. Your coach questions your effort, pointing out that the low-flying Coyotes blocked 25 shots, and you blocked six. Wow. In hockey, blocking a shot is all about effort. It's about absorbing the blow and charging the other way. And a failure to do that flies in the face of the desperation with which a team in the Lightning's situation should attack a game. It doesn't matter the size of the opponent. It matters the situation of the home team.
And the Lightning fizzled, floundered and flopped.
With 10 games to go, they are still playing chase.
"There’s been a lot of frustrating games this year,” coach Jon Cooper said. “This ranks up there though just with how important the game is to us. That 3-2 lead at home going into the third in a must-win for us. To give it up like we did, it’s frustrating to say the least.”
There have been too many of these games for the team this year, games where the Lightning threw its emblem onto the ice and expected the opposition to faint at the sight of it. Yes, there are too many minor leaguers around. The defense is bad. The offense is weak. The goaltending has been shaky.
But with the playoffs in mind, this team has given up 15 goals in three games.
How are you going to win with that?
"In our last two games, we’ve scored three,” Cooper said. “In the past, when we’ve made a commitment to play D, we’ve won those games. Regardless, we’ve gotten points out of those games, but to give up five, five, and five, all of a sudden defending hasn’t become important. If you’re not going to defend, you’re not going to win. That’s where I think the guys got to get that back inside them. You look at the stretch of 15 to 17 games prior to these three, it was one, one, two, one and we won. It seems now it’s got to be 6-5 or it’s not fun. That’s how it used to be here for a long time. We’re going nowhere if that’s the attitude we’re going to have.
"As I said, we were too worried about scoring goals instead of keeping them out of our own net.”
At this point in the season, let's be honest, the Coyotes are ready to go home. Put enough pressure on them, and they'll mail it in. It says a great deal about the Bolts – none of it good – that The Bolts were outscored 3-0 in the third period.
Again, if you can get past the desolation of the evening fair quite a skate in itself – then you can still see hope. The Bolts need a mini-streak, and they're capable of getting back in this.
But not if they play the way they did Tuesday, when they let Cleveland of the NHL beat them. Not if they aren't going to give an honest effort. Not if they aren't going to treat a one-goal lead like something precious.
Here's a hard question. If you knew one team was just skating out the string on Tuesday night, who would you think it was?
Probably the Lightning. And that's probably the cruelest thing you can say about this team.
They made you think it was time to chop up the ice, time to store the net. They made you think it was time to find the light switch
"We're running out of real estate,” Cooper said.
That's how it felt. Like a broken toy. Like being caught out in the rain. Like burned bacon. Like a missed train.
Most of all, like a botched opportunity.