Lightning game ends in controversy. And now an era could end in heartbreak
TAMPA – So this is how it ends? With a frame-by-frame breakdown of the fatal goal, like Abraham Zapruder filming from the 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 that the Lightning were eventually killed by a conspiracy of silence?
Let's hope the vague complaints coach Jon Cooper alluded to in his brief press conference after Wednesday night's game was just the frustration of a man whose team may finally be running out of tomorrow's endless supply.
Tampa Bay lost 3-2 in overtime to Colorado in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals, leaving the Lightning just one loss away from the end of their reign at the top of the NHL.
That's the headline. That's the news. That's the reality.
But the coming days could be filled with screenshots, slow-motion videos, and insane complaints that the Lightning were cheated out of a three-point shot because the umpires didn't call the 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. “I was with a group that just fights, fights and fights. And they fought their way to a third straight Stanley Cup final. And in a Cap era where it's so damn hard and the rules are against you because the league wants parity.
"And that's what I love about the league. And that makes it harder...but this one is going to sting a lot more than others...just because it's gained weight...it might have been...I don't know...it's hard for me. It will be difficult for me to speak. I will speak to you (Thursday). You'll see what I mean when you see the winning goal. And my heart beats for the players. Because we should probably still be playing."
So did that actually happen?
Yes? Probably? Possibly?
At least one version of the video appears to show Nazem Kadri jumping onto the ice a few seconds before Nathan MacKinnon reaches the bench. Just as MacKinnon leaves the ice, the Colorado players begin to celebrate as Kadri scores the winning goal.
Even more damning was the official score handed out by league officials in the moments leading up to Cooper's press conference. Each goal includes a list of players who were on the ice at the time the goal was scored.
There are seven players listed for the Avalanche on Kadris Tor. That is of course one more than allowed. The league later removed Erik Johnson's number from the list of players on the ice in its online boxing score and announced in the media workroom that Johnson was not on the ice.
To be honest, that was a poor response from the NHL.
Between the confusion caused by the initial box score, the apparent video evidence, and the whiff of an allegation from Cooper, the NHL should have addressed the controversy quickly.
Instead, after 1 a.m., the league finally released a statement that none of the officials on the ice had seen too many men on the ice and the game was not the subject of a video review.
But the statement essentially leaves everyone hanging. The umpires didn't see too many men on the ice, but the league never says if the initial decision was correct.
And so the Avs have a cloud over their victory, the Lightning have bile in their throats and millions of fans are wondering what the heck happened.
And that's a shame. Because that was a great game and could have been a wonderful moment for two great teams.
And even though the Lightning lost, that night was everything you've 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 last game of the season at the Amalie Arena - it was a fitting farewell, even if the final moments ended in confusion.
When the Blitz misses a third straight title, it's not for lack of trying. The owner spent money, the general manager made deadline trades, and the players kept their hearts on the ice.
At some point we may have simply asked too much of them.
Coming this far without Brayden Point, your top scorer of the last two postseasons, is impressive enough. Nikita Kucherov is also suffering and Nick Paul is not doing very well.
And then, over the course of Game 4, the Blitz lost Erik Cernak. Anthony Cirelli also went down with a right arm injury and couldn't take more faceoffs on his return.
"We're grinding, we're giving it our all, it's certainly not due to a lack of effort," said captain Steven Stamkos. "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 a challenge for both teams this season.
“You have people who are going through a lot of stuff right now. The boys are just fighting and our group will fight.”
Did the Lightning deserve to lose Game 4? No, but only because they played so bravely.
So were they 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 are doing their best to make every decision right. If you missed this one, so be it. There is always tomorrow.
Even if they start walking to Tampa Bay.
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