What was more stunning, aside from the Capitals eventually cruising to a 4-0 win and advancing to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in two decades, was how it happened.
That scoreboard that Hedman and his teammates had scanned before the second intermission also told the story of how much the Lightning had outplayed Washington through the first 40 minutes. It held considerable advantages in shots on goal and in hits, two areas that Tampa Bay had been dominated in during a 3-0 loss in Game 6 on Monday night. Tampa Bay had made the adjustments early on in Game 7. It mattered little.
“If you were going to tell me after watching two periods that we were going to be the team down 3-0, I would have said, ‘No way,’ ” Tampa Bay Coach Jon Cooper said.
But the narrative had finally flipped for the Capitals after so much misfortune in Game 7’s over the years. Washington capitalized on its opportunities. Tampa Bay, despite promising earlier in the day to deliver an elevated effort, simply didn’t in its third Eastern Conference finals Game 7 in four years.
Tampa Bay had control of this series after a 3-2 win in Game 5, which included three goals in just more than 20 minutes. It wouldn’t score again, going more nearly eight periods without a goal, an inexplicable development given that this team led the league in scoring during the regular season and had flashed its offensive firepower earlier in the series.
“We put everything on the table tonight, especially the first two periods,” said Hedman, whose team held a 22-15 advantage on shots and a 34-22 edge on hits through the second period. “We had some unbelievable chances. The puck just didn’t go in.”
On Wednesday night, the Lightning watched countless scoring opportunities slip through its hands, including a Hedman rocket that hit the post. He had become the first defenseman in 23 years to record a point in eight straight postseason games earlier in the series, but now he was watching everything sail. The back-breaker came on a 2-on-1 led by Hedman in the second period, when his shot slipped through the legs of Washington goaltender Braden Holtby and rested in the crease. His teammate Yanni Gourde whiffed on the rebound on a wide-open net.
A few minutes later, Washington cashed in on its first break of the second period after a puck bounced off Tampa Bay defenseman Dan Girardi near his net. Andre Burakovsky picked it off and scored his first of two breakaway goals on Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who had done his best to keep his team in this series despite its offensive meltdown over the final two games. By the beginning of the final period, the Lightning looked beaten and didn’t have a shot through the first ten minutes.
“They capitalized on their Grade A chances. And we hit a couple posts. Just couldn’t find that first one to gain momentum,” Girardi said.
The Lightning’s roster had amassed more than 1,500 playoff combined playoff games, but this one will sting the most for a franchise that has been knocking on the door over the past four years. The locker room fell silent as the cornerstones returned to shed their pads for the final time this season.
Hedman’s eyes were red, and he stared at the floor in disbelief. Captain Steven Stamkos, who has yet to score a point in six Game 7s over his decorated but titleless career, tried to find the words to explain the end to reporters. When he was asked about his team’s future, he tried to draw strength out of the origin story of the Capitals, who had been through some much heartache like this before breaking through Wednesday night.
“Just look at that team that we just lost to. They’ve just been continually building and building,” Stamkos said. “The window is never closed.”