TAMPA - To a man, they said this team was different than the last one, that this season was different, too.
But on the level that mattered most, the level that flattened another Lightning playoff run before it ran, it was more of the same, and this franchise is full up with that.
The Lightning didn't have what it takes to beat the New Jersey Devils, so they came from ahead to lose in six games, dropping the final three. With Sunday's 3-2 loss, the Bolts have put a second season and another first-round playoff exit between them and that Cup. They're 3-8 in the postseason since then.
"One thing this team isn't is an underachieving team," Coach John Tortorella said. And, boy, is he right. The Lightning won one whole playoff game more this time around. Actually, what he should have said is what we need to get through our thick skulls: This isn't a great team. It's one with four great players, average defense and below-average goaltending.
The Big Three weren't enough. Johan Holmqvist wasn't enough, not that it's his fault. Whose fault is it, anyway? It doesn't matter. What matters is that next season might be it for this franchise as we know it.
"We have to look at where that window of opportunity is," Lightning GM Jay Feaster said.
It's closing. Fast.
Is The Money There?
I say the Lightning have one more shot before things get dismantled, things the idea of three headliners making 40 percent of payroll, and the coach and GM, too.
Ownership has expressed confidence in Feaster and Tortorella, as well as the Vinny-Marty-Richy model. The Lightning have made the playoffs four consecutive seasons. They've won the Cup one more time than most of us dreamed.
But mistakes have been made. The needs are clear.
One more shot.
Is the money there?
Bill Davidson paid NHL top dollar, $44 million, for 44 wins and a No. 7 seed. It's legitimate to ask if the payroll will stay close to that next season without some kind of win-or-die understanding.
There's no getting around Disaster No. 1: The trade for Marc Denis couldn't have gone more badly. Major demerits to Tortorella and Feaster. They've whiffed twice on replacing Nik Khabibulin with no conclusive evidence to suggest that Holmqvist is the answer. Heck, the Bucs have gone through fewer quarterbacks.
Denis didn't dress Sunday. The Lightning gave up two-way finisher Freddie Modin for him and he never played a second in this series.
Those expected to replace Modin didn't. Denis' $2.8-million cap hit hangs like a noose.
Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis, lions all season, scored eight of the Lightning's 14 goals this series before running out of magic and gas. Brad Richards had three others, including two Sunday. But what was missing all season was a finisher to give this team two true scoring lines.
Yes, Richards should have had a better season, what with him carrying the league's second-highest salary, but he would have been better with better linemates. The guys he was usually stuck with either had hands, but no heart, or heart, but no hands.
The Lightning desperately need a winger who can finish, easier said than done in their budget puzzle, troubling because there are no wingers in the farm system. Their bad. And it's coming home to roost.
Tangled In Net
The Bolts still need another goaltender. Can you entrust next season to Holmqvist and rookie Karri Ramo? Feaster thinks Holmqvist is "part" of the answer and that Ramo "is knocking on the door." Can next season really be about part answers and door knockers?
This team needs bargains.
"It's still a dynamic, exciting hockey team," Feaster said. "It's still a place where guys want to come to play, because of the style."
The guess is they'll probably look for a 20-goal scorer who scouts say can score 35 with Richards and maybe an experienced (past-his-prime) goalie for one season - one shot.
Lightning economics are bound to change when Feaster talks with Davidson and CEO Tom Wilson. "We still need to see where we are budget wise, what deals might be out there," Feaster said. You can almost hear beans being weighed against these early exits.
Then there's what happens after next season. Dan Boyle, AWOL on offense this series, will need a new contract. Defensemen who score 20 goals are scarce. Don't expect Boyle to take one for the team, salary wise, as he did after the lockout.
It points to the window of opportunity slamming shut sooner than you think. Maybe the Big-Three model gets dumped. I'm not blaming Feaster and Tortorella for it. I would have paid Lecavalier, St. Louis and Richards. Maybe we're not talking about this if Denis had stepped up. That's neither here nor there.
What's here is a reckoning.
And the Lightning are short-handed. Again.