Lightning game ends in controversy. And now an era can end in heartbreak

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, should we raise our voices in collective anger? Is it possible that the Lightning finally got in through a conspiracy of silence?

Let’s hope not.

Let’s hope the ever-vague complaints coach Jon Cooper hinted at in his brief post-game press conference Wednesday night were just the frustrations of a man whose team may finally run out of tomorrow’s endless supply.

Tampa Bay lost 3-2 to Colorado in overtime in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, leaving the Lightning a single defeat to end their reign atop the NHL.

That’s the headline. That’s the news. That’s the reality.

But the next few days could be filled with screen grabs, slow-motion videos and maniacal complaints that the Lightning was denied a chance at a three-peat because the umpires failed to 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 fight, fight and fight. And they fought their way to a third Stanley Cup final in a row. And in a cap era where it’s so damn hard and the rules are used against you because the league wants equality.

“And that’s what I love about the competition. And that makes it harder… but this one will sting a lot more than others… just because it started to get more and more… it was potential… I don’t know… It’s hard for me. It will be hard for me to talk. I’ll talk to 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 have to play.”

So is that what really happened?

Yes? Probably? Possibly?

At least one version of the video appears to show Nazem Kadri jumping onto the ice seconds before Nathan MacKinnon reaches the couch. Just as MacKinnon steps off the ice, Colorado players begin to cheer as Kadri scores the winning goal.

Even more devastating was the official score handed out by league workers just before Cooper’s press conference. Each goal contains a list of players on the ice at the time it was scored.

On Kadri’s goal are seven players for the Avalanche. 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 the online box score and announced in the media workroom that Johnson was not on the ice.

Frankly, that was a weak response from the NHL.

Between the confusion of the first box score, the apparent video evidence, and the smell of an accusation from Cooper, the NHL should have dealt with the controversy quickly.

Instead, it was after 1 a.m. when the league finally released a statement saying that none of the officials on the ice saw too many men on the ice and that the piece is not subject to 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 first call was correct.

And so the Avs have a cloud over their win, the Lightning have bile in their throats and millions of fans are wondering what the hell happened.

And that’s a shame. Because this was a great game and could have been a great moment for two great teams.

And even though the Lightning lost, tonight was everything you’ve always loved about this team. The skill, the determination, the selflessness and the fearlessness.

And if this was to be the end – if this is the last game of the season at Amalie Arena – it was a fitting goodbye, even if the final moments ended in confusion.

If the Lightning doesn’t make it to a third straight title, it wasn’t for lack of trying. The owner spent money, the general manager set deadlines for transactions and the players left their hearts on the ice.

At some point, we may have simply asked too much of them.

It’s impressive enough to get this far without Brayden Point, your top scorer from the past two postseasons. Nikita Kucherov is also in pain, and Nick Paul is not quite well.

And then, as Game 4 went on, the Lightning Erik Cernak lost. Anthony Cirelli also went down with a right arm injury and when he returned he was unable to take any more face-offs.

“We’re grinding, we’re giving everything, it’s certainly not for lack of effort,” said captain Steven Stamkos. “Like I said, it’s a sacrifice at this time of year. No one else outside the locker room knows. Sometimes you think you know, but you don’t. It’s a challenge for both teams at this time of year.

“You have guys who are playing through a lot of stuff right now. Guys just fight, and our group goes into battle.”

Did the Lightning deserve to lose Game 4? No, but only because they played so bravely.

So were they cheated out of a Game 4 win? No, not even if the Avs had too many men on the ice.

This game is played at a frantic pace and the umpires do their best to make every decision go smoothly. If they missed this one, so be it. There is always tomorrow.

Even if they run out for Tampa Bay.

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