TAMPA - The season begins in a different time. It travels beyond a calendar and becomes something almost viable.
Something you can feel but cannot touch. Something not quite alive but still breathing. Something measured not by months but heartbeats.
Is this the way it ends?
With a turnover by the team's most skilled player?
With a rebound that cannot be found?
With a chance that may never be regained?
In a game with untold moments of opportunity, the one that counted most for Tampa Bay never got past the blue line.
It never will be seen beyond the imagination.
"It's a turnover in the neutral zone," Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella said. "And they rammed it down our throat."
The Lightning and Flames were in the 14th minute of overtime in the fifth game of a series that had never before reached this level of intensity.
The puck found Vinny Lecavalier skating in the open ice with Martin St. Louis a few strides ahead to his left. Calgary had two defensemen back pedaling, and the Lightning had the breakaway it had waited for all night.
Until this moment, Tampa Bay's rushes had come at the wrong moments with the wrong men leading the charge. Chris Dingman in the first period. Dave Andreychuk in the third. A banger without touch or a skater without speed.
This one was different. This was Lecavalier, the most skilled player in the dressing room. This was St. Louis, the quickest player on the Lightning side.
There was, it seemed, a world of possibilities. Passes from here to there. Moves around this opponent or that one. Shots and rebounds. Glory and memories. The kind of give and take that has defined this Lightning season.
Except none of that happened.
Lecavalier tried to float the puck beyond the blue line, and it was intercepted by Robyn Regehr.
Ten seconds later, the game was over, and the Lightning's season was in peril.
"You always talk about our best players, yes, your best players need to be your best," Tortorella said. "They weren't there, but along with everyone else, too. We'll eat this one as a group of 20."
Jarome Iginla picked up the puck near the Lightning blue line and set in motion a series of shots and rebounds that may be the final gasp of a season. Iginla's shot from the right of the net was blocked by Nikolai Khabibulin, but the Lightning could move neither the puck nor Oleg Saprykin.
He slid a shot past Khabibulin and into Calgary lore.
In the end, it should be recalled this way:
The Flames kept Iginla, their best player, on the ice for an extended shift. They got him the puck while St. Louis was skating off the ice and Lecavalier was nowhere of consequence.
If it comes to pass, it would be an awful postscript to a marvelous season. The wrong memory for a team of offensive distinction.
Time was, these players could not be stopped. There were too many.
Brad Richards' deft pass. Andreychuk in front of the net. Fredrik Modin unloading a rocket shot from out here. Lecavalier showing the magician's touch. St. Louis arriving with fire in his soul.
They came at teams in waves. With little difference between the first and second lines, and just enough presence to scare you on the third.
Through five games of the Stanley Cup final, that team rarely has been around. Worse yet, in the biggest game of the season, the Lightning stars began at a crawl. And somehow slowed down.
Two minutes into the evening, the Lightning was losing. It was only one goal, but it was the goal that had meant everything in the series. The team scoring first had won the first four games.
For the next 15 minutes, the Lightning looked like a team watching its demise. Only Khabibulin's brilliance kept Tampa Bay alive.
When St. Louis backhanded a shot past Miikka Kiprusoff in the final minute of the period, it seemed the Lightning was reborn.
This is the way the series was meant to be played. With excitement rather than anger. Skills rather than fists. One team chasing another, one goaltender answering the other.
But, in the end, the Lightning was done in by the one thing that has separated it from others.
Tampa Bay is supposed to be the team of speed. The team with a pressing offense. With only one gear and no particular need for brakes.
On Thursday night, the Lightning was the team caught in the chase. The team that saw opportunity turn to disappointment.
You can only hope it is not the season's lasting memory.