PITTSBURGH — For four years, you had waited for this game. For 1,450 nights, through disastrous owners and disposable players and desperate trades that never seemed to work out, this was the game that was supposed to make the wait worthwhile.
As it turns out, it wasn't.
That game, we may assume, is scheduled for Friday.
How else can the Lightning treat a disappointing result? Yes, you have heard the mantra before because all losing teams have similar things to say. It was one game, nothing more. It was a single misstep in a thousand-mile journey. For a game that mattered so much, it turns out that it meant nothing at all. And so forth.
For almost as long as there has been ice, there has been hockey, and the team that has lost the first game of a series has shrugged the same and said the same sort of things. And much of the time, they turn out to be right. There is a great distance between an opening statement and a last laugh.
In other words, while the Lightning's 3-0 loss to the Penguins on Wednesday night was a huge letdown, it was not a catastrophe, and no, it is not time to crate up the pucks for the offseason. It was a loss, for all that it was and all that it was not. What? Did you expect the Lightning to sweep?
The Lightning got Fleuried. The Lightning got penalty killed.
No, it did not get eliminated.
Today, there may be some who will treat perspective like a pinata because this generation of Lightning players has not yet done enough to be completely trusted with something as precious as the postseason. And the historians among us might note that in every season in which the Lightning has been ousted from the playoffs (all four of them), it has lost the first game of that series.
On the other hand, the first playoff series the Lightning ever won — against Washington back in 2003 — came after it lost the first two games of the series. And the most important series the Lightning has ever won — against Calgary in the 2004 Stanley Cup final — came after an opening-game loss.
In other words, this is no time to surrender.
Fortunately, the Lightning players already seemed to know that.
"The reality is that it was only one game," said goaltender Dwayne Roloson.
Look, no one is saying you shouldn't be disappointed the Lightning lost because for the first half of it, this game was there to be had. Also, it would have been nice if the team could have tickled the net a time or two, for your confidence if nothing else. Also, giving up two goals in 18 seconds is never a good idea. Also, the Lightning needs to be a little more determined to stay out of the penalty box.
That said, there is also this: If the Lightning is going to outlast Pittsburgh in this series, it will take a blueprint fairly close to the way it played for the first half of Wednesday's game.
For much of the night, the Lightning had enough energy to win this game. It had enough defense. It had enough chances — especially early — and it got off enough shots. Except for the 18 seconds of misery in the third period, it had enough goaltending.
What it did not have is enough finish on its shots or in its game. Coach Guy Boucher talked about three open nets that his team missed. He also talked about how his team lost its momentum with its offensive stars on the bench watching the team chase Pittsburgh's power play. Perhaps that is why the Penguins were the stronger team, the more dominating team, in the last period and a half.
"We're a momentum team," Boucher said.
Give the Penguins credit for some of this loss, too. Since losing their pair of dazzling scorers — Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin — the Pens have transitioned quite nicely into a tighter, grittier team that plays like, well, the Steelers. They are an experienced, patient playoff team that doesn't seem as if it's asking Crosby to hurry back.
In the games to come, the Lightning has to do a better job of solving Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Again, the earlier the better. It would help if, somehow, Steven Stamkos could find his GPS again. It would help if Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier could rediscover the touch they've always had in the playoffs.
Let's be honest. There have been opening-game losses (to the Devils in 2007, to the Senators in 2006) that suggested the Lighting might be in over its head. This loss wasn't like that.
This time, I'm not quite convinced. If the Lightning can win Friday, this can still turn into a long, contentious series.
Otherwise, you may proceed with the worry.