It stings now. Of course, it stings. You don’t invest this much of your soul, don’t spill this much of your blood, to simply shrug your shoulders and say, “Wait ’Til Next Year.” See, that’s the funny part about Next Year: there is never a guarantee it will arrive. It’s why you fight so hard to seize a moment.
And will sting for a while.
“We had a real shot,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said with a sigh.
There will come a day when the cloud of disappointment lifts, when the shroud of what-might-have-been dissolves, and what will remain are the snapshots of a joyous, glorious ride. The Islanders were underdogs in every series they played in this postseason.
They surprised the Penguins. They startled the Bruins.
And make no mistake: The Lightning knew what they just escaped on their way to a shot at a second straight Stanley Cup. They know they had to play their very best game of the hockey season, and that’s what they did.
They needed a short-handed goal from Yanni Gourde to get there. They needed 18 saves from Andrei Vasilevskiy. They needed to put every ounce of talent, skill and playoff experience on the ice for 60 minutes. You could tell from the jump they believed they were better than the Islanders.
But they had to prove it. Friday night, they proved it. Barely.
Friday night, they were one goal better than the Islanders, and yes: the hurt will be magnified a bit because the Isles surrendered that goal on the power play. The Islanders, a roster full of would-be deans of discipline, somehow allowed the Lightning to beat them in the only 5-on-4 shift of the night — and it was with the Islanders up a man.
They never could get the equalizer.
“It hurts no matter what,” Josh Bailey said. “But that situation …”
You could tell he was watching that goal all over again in his mind’s eye. And it caused his real eyes to water.
“It’s so hard to get to this point,” he said. “It’s tough.”
So were they.
“I appreciate it,” Scott Mayfield said of this 19-game march to within the front doorstep of the Stanley Cup Final. “It’s an honor to play with these guys. I don’t think back-to-back years making it to the final four that that’s a fluke. I don’t know if anyone believed in us at the start of the playoffs, but we believed in ourselves. We’re a confident group.”
“It stings right now,” Mayfield said.
Yes. It does. Of course it stings. Of course it will be difficult for them — and for you, even more — to ponder that there’ll be more hockey games going on without them. That Montreal-Tampa Bay series might as well be played on Antarctica, for all the attention the players will give it, and their fans.
Bailey wasn’t the only one whose emotions were overwhelmed at the final horn; they were all raw, all gutted, all on the verge of losing it. They shook hands, because that’s what hockey players do. They wished the Lightning well, because that’s who hockey players are.
And they probably wanted to scream at the sky.
You get that close to dancing on stars, get that close to playing for the Cup, you bet you want to shout and roar and cry. That’s the beauty of this sport, after all. You take any 40 hockey players and tell them there’s a game on some outdoor rink in Saskatchewan, with nothing more than a keg of Labatt Blue on the line, most of them will say, “What time?”
This was for more than a keg of beer. This was for a shot at the Cup. This was to add a fifth banner to the collection that’ll be unveiled in the new arena next year. This was for at least two more games at Nassau Coliseum. It turns out they closed the Old Barn with class Wednesday night. But that wasn’t the intention. They wanted more.
When it didn’t happen, there was agony in their voices and sadness on their faces. Yeah. Hockey players are different. This was like the high school football team losing in the state playoffs. You don’t see a lot of pro athletes act this way, even at the end of a season.
You see that every year with hockey players
“Wasn’t our time,” Mathew Barzal said, on the verge of weeping.
Not this time. Not this year. Maybe next year. Soon, you’ll be able to think about next year. Soon enough, the sting will go away. Just not now. Just not yet. It stings.