You could see it in their eyes. They weren’t the eyes of champions, confident and determined to do whatever it takes to win.
Watching hockey in hi-def on TV, even a casual fan can see two crucial things: the puck and the eyes of the players.
The eyes of the Lightning looked like those of over-matched players who knew they couldn’t win.
They weren’t game 7 eyes.
Game 7? You heard me right.
Go back to game 7 of last year’s Conference Finals when the Bolts were blanked 4-0 by the Washington Capitals, the eventual Stanley Cup winners with game 7 eyes.
Last year’s game 7 loss was when the historic playoff collapse of this year’s Lightning began. In between was a nice little season when some records were set, 62 regular season wins if you’re counting.
But 5 is the number that matters, as in 5 playoff losses in a row. That’s the streak the Lightning have to break if they want to get on with the dream of winning a Stanley Cup.
I don’t think they’ll ever reach that goal. Not this team. Not as is. Here’s why:
Forget this year. I quietly made this prediction about the Bolts’ future last year after Game 7. It was an easy call.
To win the Stanley Cup, you have to be a great team. The Lightning are not a great team.
Great teams show up in Game 7. They may not always win. But they make a game of it. They fight like rabid dogs until the bitter end, leaving it all on the ice, field, or court. Always.
The Lightning didn’t show up for Game 7 of the 2018 Conference Finals. Their eyes told the whole story. They looked like a helpless team that was on its way to being shut out with the season on the line--at home.
The fans did what fans do when their team loses at home to end a playoff run. They applauded a great season and said wait ‘till next year.
And the media did what it does when its darling home team doesn’t get out of warm-ups in Game 7, it makes excuses with cliches like they didn’t have enough left in the tank and this team is built for the long run.
And what a run the 2019 regular season was. 62 wins. 128 team points. Presidents' Trophy. Home ice advantage throughout the playoffs. Three 40 goal scorers. Speaking of whom…
Great players show up in Game 7, too. Always.
Can anyone remember a game 7 when Michael Jordan wasn’t great? How about a conference championship when Emmitt Smith didn’t want the ball? Oh, and I’m trying to remember, did Tom Brady ever leave his best pass in pre-game warm-ups when the season was on the line?
Never. Why? Because great players show up when it matters most. (And every player is tired, hurt, or running on empty by the time any game 7 rolls around.)
Not only do great players show up, they demand their teammates show up, too. We never saw that with the Lightning in this year’s epic playoff collapse.
Never once did the high-definition TV images show one of the Lightning’s superstars get in the face of his teammates and make a profanity-laced decree that this ends now. We take OVER now. We turn the series NOW.
Didn’t see it. All we saw was the eyes of helpless lambs who looked like they were waiting for someone else to step up and turn things around.
It was all in the eyes.
There’s always next year. And the good news is the 2019 Lightning will get to watch this year’s playoffs on HD TV, where the eyes of win-or-die champions are on display every night.
Fred Smith was born in the '70s, wore long socks and short shorts in the '80s, played drums in bands in the '90s, and became a husband (to the greatest woman on the planet) and a father in
the 2000s. This decade he's made a few movies and written a few books you can check out on this site.
Stick around. Have a few rounds on the house. Then, you know...buy something.
Fred Smith's latest book of short stories, The Closet, is now available on