The Stanley Cup Playoffs begin today, and the Tampa Bay Lightning will not be participating for the first time in four years.
That reality set in as the Bolts watched the Toronto Maple Leafs clinch the final spot in the Eastern Conference with a win over the Pittsburgh Penguins a day before the conclusion of the regular season.
The point was further hammered home a day after the final game as players cleaned out their locker room stalls, had their final meetings with coaches and trainers and spoke one last time to the media before their offseason officially began.
"I've never been in this position before, whether it be in juniors or anything," said Lightning center Tyler Johnson, who missed 14 of the final 16 games with a lower-body injury. "The last five years, we've had some pretty good runs. It's just one of those things you can honestly say it just sucks. It's not a fun time. It's not where we want to be. We wanted to be in the playoffs. That's where the fun hockey is. Now we're going to be even more motivated for next year."
As the Lightning went into their home game against Anaheim on February 4, they sat last in the Eastern Conference standings. But starting with a 3-2 shootout win versus the Ducks, Tampa Bay finished the season 20-6-4, the top point percentage in the league (.733) over that stretch.
Video: Cooper on Bolts 2016-17 season
But, ultimately, Tampa Bay's deficit was too large a hole to climb out of. While the Lightning were winning key games down the stretch, so too were the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins and the New York Islanders, teams the Bolts were chasing in the standings, or in the case of the Islanders, battling to climb up into a playoff spot.
"We showed everybody how good we can be when we play the right way, we play as a team, we're defending well," Tampa Bay winger Ondrej Palat said. "First half of the season we didn't do that."
The Lightning finished 2016-17 in fifth place in the Atlantic Division and one point behind Toronto for the final wild card at 94 points, just three points less than they collected in 2015-16 when they placed second in the Atlantic. That team would go on to win two playoff series and take eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh to seven games in the Eastern Conference Final before falling 2-1 on the road in Game 7.
"I think it shows the parity in our division and more so the conference," Bolts forward Alex Killorn said. "It's tough to make the playoffs. It was three points from this year to last year so it just shows you how close these teams are. It's tough looking back that it was only three points and we went all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals."
So why did the Lightning fall short this season? Certainly inconsistency through the first four months of the season didn't help. Perhaps because of key injuries to standouts like Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan or maybe because of the number of games they played over the two seasons prior to 2016-17 - 207, most in the league by 13 games - the Lightning couldn't string together large stretches of wins or games collecting points. They had a pair of four-game losing skids in late November and early January, slides that never happened the previous couple of years. The Bolts also finished 1-5-0 against the three worst teams in the NHL -- Colorado, Vancouver and Arizona - including a 0-3-0 mark at home versus those teams.
"We couldn't seem to find our footing," said Callahan, who ended up playing just 18 of 82 games due to offseason hip surgery and a follow-up surgical procedure on the hip in early January. "We had a lot of guys coming in and out of the lineup, and I think that was an issue too. You don't want to completely rely and say it was just injuries because I don't think that's the case. I think when you're struggling a bit and you've got new faces coming in, it's hard to get your footing and get going. It's a tough year, especially with the group we have in here and the expectations we had to be doing these interviews right now. It's disappointing and it's tough to take."
Another underlying issue with the 2016-17 version of the Lightning was their inability to keep the puck out of their own net. In each season under head coach Jon Cooper, the Bolts had seen their goals-against average fall.
That is, until this season.
In 2011-12, the final full season under Guy Boucher, Tampa Bay owned the worst GAA in the league at 3.39. The following season, Cooper took over in March, and the Lightning finished the year fifth-worst for GAA at 3.06 in the league.
In Cooper's first full season behind the bench, the team GAA dropped over half a point to 2.55 (11th best in NHL). It went down again during the 2014-15 Stanley Cup run to 2.51 (12th best in the league).
Last season, the Lightning had their best-ever finish for GAA in franchise history, ranking fifth in the league at 2.41.
But in 2016-17, for the first time under Cooper, the Bolts' goals-against went up, rising to 2.73, ranking 16th in the league.
Video: Palat on feeling of disappointment
"The teams that are fighting at the end of the year, that are standing are the best defensive hockey teams," Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said. "They keep the puck out of their net. Mostly they keep the chances against down. You need great goaltending, but as a style of play, you need to keep the goals against down, keep the chances against down. We'll strive to have a good power play again next year. Our penalty kill was up and down but was very strong down the stretch. Not coincidentally, we won a lot of hockey games. So we'll continue to get back to being a really conscientious good defensive hockey team, keep the puck out of our net. That'll be an improvement. And hopefully we continue to be amongst the top teams in offensive production. We've got to get back to where our goals against is at least in the top ten in the league."
Whatever the reason, the Lightning will be forced to watch from a distance when the final 16 teams in the NHL begin the second season, the "fun season" as Johnson put it.
"I told myself I'm probably not going to watch (the playoffs), but I probably will because I just love to watch hockey and I love playoff hockey," Ondrej Palat said.
Lightning fans had grown accustomed to loving playoff hockey over the past few seasons too.
Hopefully, the Bolts' one-year absence is a blip rather than the start of a trend.