TAMPA - One breath left now. One heartbeat to spare. One last disappointment to avoid.
From here, you can see the offseason.
From here, you can sense the pain.
They lost. In a critical Game 5, in the crucial moments of overtime, a puck found its way to the wrong side of Nikolai Khabibulin, and quick as darkness, the players of the Tampa Bay Lightning were filing off the ice, talking of one last tomorrow.
Just like that and the Flames had the Stanley Cup in one hand and the throats of the Lightning in the other. An opportunity had been lost. A comeback had been spoiled.
One chance remains. One final appeal. One last step before the graveyard.
From here, you can see the end.
From here, you can count the odds.
True, the Lightning is a resilient lot. This was Tampa Bay's seventh loss of the postseason, and after each of the other six, the Lightning has won. It will not go gently.
That said, it's a pretty steep mountain from here. Game 5 is generally considered the most important of a seven-game series. Of the 18 previous times a series was tied at two, the loser of Game 5 survived only four times. If the Lightning players are to be the fifth, they will have to overcome their spotty play, the fierceness of the Flames and the volume of the Flames' fans. Then, they'll have to win again.
It is a lot to ask.
On the other hand, it is the only request left.
If the Lightning is not able to come back, this is likely to be the game that will haunt its players into their old age. It was a night they had a chance to put the Flames in the same improbable situation as they now find themselves in, a chance to defend their turf and dare the Flames to run with them.
Instead, they soiled the sheets.
This one was lost early. The Lightning went into this game as if it were an October game against Carolina and two dozen people were in the stands. It was outplayed, outhustled, outworked. It was as if only Calgary had any idea of how much this game meant.
"You're not going to win Game 5 in the finals playing 40 minutes," seethed coach John Tortorella after the game. "We finally played in the third period, and we played a pretty decent overtime. It simply comes back and bites you on the a--.
"When Ben Clymer, Martin Cibak and Chris Dingman are your best line, it's not going to happen."
On a night this big, how does a team play this small? How does the message of what a rare opportunity this is fail to reach the Lightning locker room? Blame Tortorella, who failed to find the right buttons for one of the few times in the playoffs. Blame the players, who shouldn't have needed anyone to remind them of the size of the moment. Blame everyone.
This was their chance. Even after the horrible beginning, even after Khabibulin kept forgiving them their lapses, the Lightning had a chance to steal one. Three wins isn't enough to claim the Stanley Cup, but it's close enough to see the sparkle in the silver.
The Flames, unlike the Lightning, seemed to realize that. The first period was filled with defensive breakdowns. The second period had a power outage; the Lightning didn't get off a shot in the final 11 minutes of it.
For two periods, the Flames appeared to be two goals better. The Lightning was outshot, outhustled. Calgary looked fresher, quicker, more dangerous. It rushed Khabibulin as if it were determined to tear down the wall by the brick. Had Khabibulin not stood up to Jarome Iginla, to Martin Gelinas, to Stephane Yelle, to the entire Light Brigade, it seemed, the game would have been a rout.
Still, there are things that should happen and things that could have happened. As bad as the Lightning played, it came back.
Martin St. Louis sneaked one into the net in the fading moments of the first period. Fredrik Modin scored in the newborn minutes of the third. As quick as that, the game took on the look of one of those Lightning games where it hangs around the ropes, absorbs the blows and then somehow salvages the night. By overtime, the teams were trading rushes toward the nets like heavyweights swapping roundhouse rights.
For the first time in the series, it was a full-force, exhilarating game. For the first time, you felt as if the people who aren't watching this series are missing something. Who knows? Maybe in the first two periods, the Lightning wasn't watching, either.
Then it was over. Dan Boyle was tumbling backward, and the puck was in the net, and Oleg Saprykin had won the night. The Flames had come into the home of the Lightning and taken the jewelry.
This one will sting for a while. And it should. We are no longer in the fledgling days of the Lightning where any playoff appearance is warm and fuzzy and any ending should be cheered. These days, this team is good enough to expect more of itself, and it ought to be a little angry and a little embarrassed it didn't put up more of a fight early in this one.
Granted, it's silly to count the Lightning out. It has overcome too much, bounced back too many times. Pull an upset in Calgary, spoil the party on the Red Mile, and it forces Game 7 in Tampa.
That's how big Game 6 is. Of course, Game 5 was that big, too, and the Lightning didn't quite seem to grasp it.
One second to midnight. One drop of blood to go. One moment till the teardrops.
One more loss and the season dies while the wrong team dances.