It starts as a thought, a nagging, pesky little thought. It slips in among the confidence, and it buzzes around like a mosquito on the wrong side of a man's skull.
From there, it grows into a question, an accursed, insulting question. No matter how much success an athlete has had, no matter how illogical the question may seem, it will not go away. You can deny it a thousand times, a million, and still, it hangs around.
Finally, it grows into a full-grown doubt, a nagging, festering doubt, and just like that, the other team is skating around in your noggin.
And so, as the psychodrama that is the Lightning vs. the Penguins turns to chapter six, it seems fair to ask this:
Is the Lightning inside the head of Marc-Andre Fleury?
And if it is not, might a quick goal tonight complete the journey?
In Pittsburgh, as has been established, the goaltender is Mr. Wonderful.
By now, everyone is aware that he spent the second half of the season saving the Penguins' season after the injuries to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. He was so good in the series opener, stopping 32 shots and looking like one of the Flying Wallendas while doing so, that he became the reason the Pens might skate for a while in these playoffs.
After that series opener, a 3-0 Pittsburgh victory, the question was whether it might be Fleury inside the heads of the Lightning. Since then, Fleury has looked a little wobbly.
In Saturday's game, for instance, the game was only 25 minutes old when Fleury was plucked like a wilted flower. In a sport where there are broken teeth on the mental side of things, too, that is hardly an endorsement for a goaltender.
To be blunt, that wasn't the first evidence of vulnerability for Fleury, either. Twice, he has given up two-goal leads in this series. Twice, he has given up four goals in defeat. Since that brilliant opening game, Fleury has stopped only 80 of 92 shots, a buy-extra-bulbs-for-the-lamp-looking .869 save percentage. In the NHL's regular season, that would be good enough for 86th place in the save stats.
So has the Lightning gotten to Fleury? Oh, probably not. NHL goalies are a resilient bunch, and Fleury is both admired and accomplished. He has won a Stanley Cup, and he has been an All-Star, and he has played in bigger series than this. He has come off bad performances before.
But veterans will tell you that even among elite athletes, professional sports is a constant search for self-confidence. Put it this way: If a hot goalie can get into the heads of opposing forwards, cannot the opposite be true? (Besides, if the Lightning is not in Fleury's head, if he's simply having a less-than-ordinary series, is that necessarily better? Just asking.)
Don't you wonder what Fleury sees when he closes his eyes? Does he see Steven Stamkos, alive again? Does he see Simon Gagne, alert again? Does he see Marty St. Louis, as much of a pest as ever? Does he see Vinny Lecavalier or Dominic Moore? Does he see a series slipping away?
Does he see, perhaps, flashbacks? Remember, in the previous playoff series for Pittsburgh, the Penguins also held a 3-2 lead (over Montreal). And Fleury lost two in a row, giving up four goals in each game.
As for the Lightning, it expects excellence out of Fleury. Why expect less?
"He's going to bounce back and be as good as he has been," said Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher. "I'd be surprised if he doesn't bounce back."
"He's a world-class goaltender," said St. Louis. "We expect him to be tough."
Let's be honest. The Lightning is still behind in this series, and the Penguins only have to split the next two games to advance. The road ahead remains uphill.
That said, the Lightning is coming off of its best game of the series, and it has the momentum, and it has what used to be a home-ice advantage. On Saturday, it had one of those "oh, he still plays here" sort of games. Stamkos was Stamkos, and Gagne was Gagne and Pavel Kubina was, well, Kubina was St. Louis.
This, too, was important. The Lightning found the net early. That's an important task for a team that is behind in the playoffs. Score early, and it suggests the night belongs to you. Score early, and you are in control. Consider the difference in the way Fleury has played when he has had the lead and when he has not.
And so the head games continue. And that's the point. As brutal as this game can be, much of it is still played inside the cranium. That's why the first goal has mattered so much. It's why home ice has mattered so little. Playoff hockey is so emotional that it becomes the ultimate stress test as far as approach, as far as injury, as far as mental sharpness.
Can the Lightning get inside of Fleury's head tonight?
It depends on how many pucks it can get into the net behind him.