TAMPA —When the end finally came, when the Lightning had been defeated, when the Pittsburgh Penguins had seized an NHL series by the neck, there was a moment that seemed to be owned by the numbness of it all.
It had lost. Finally and, perhaps, fatally.
It had lost after scuffling from yet another two-goal deficit, after getting off the canvas to give itself another chance.
It had lost when goaltender Dwayne Roloson, so brilliant for most of the night, failed to stop a fairly harmless looking shot by James Neal that went past his right foot and into the net.
After all of the shifts, after all of the sweat, after all of the coming back, it lost in one swift, stunning split second.
For the Lightning, it was that dagger-thrust of a final shot that will leave its scars. It was that shot that will be debated and discussed, that play that will be repeated on highlight shows for weeks to come.
That play, however, was only the final blow.
For the Lightning, the real cause of death came earlier when, for some mystifying reason, the team was not hungry enough, desperate enough or energized enough to claim a game that it needed to claim as its own.
Today, that should be the question asked of the Lightning. How could it come out so bland? So pedestrian?
For the first period and a half of this game, it might as well have been playing the Panthers in Game 78 at the end of a six-game road swing. Put it this way: This time, no one is going to ask if the team was over-amped at the start.
For a very long time, it was outshot 2-1 and it was outhit 2-1. It was hardly the look of a team with its back against the ropes.
And now, it is in trouble. The pulse-is-getting-weak trouble. The heartbeat-is-growing-faint trouble. The lights-are-growing-dim trouble.
You cannot overstate how huge this defeat was for the Lighting. After this, there are going to be lines in the confetti stores in Pittsburgh.
Of course, going down 3-1 to anyone in an NHL playoff series is always a ticket to trouble. After all, only 8.7 percent of the teams have ever dug themselves out of such a hole. But going down 3-1 to Pittsburgh, a veteran team with an acrobat for a goaltender and guard dogs for defensemen, seemed like a particularly bad plan.
Win in Pittsburgh? Possible.
Win again in Tampa Bay? Also possible?
Win a second straight in Pittsburgh. Still possible.
Win all three in a row?
This one is going to sting for a while.
For one thing, the Lightning spent so much time working its way out of yet another two-goal deficit. Even after its lead-footed beginning, the Lightning came from behind.
In the end, if this is the end, that may be the lasting memory of Guy Boucher's first team. Give it this: It fights to the end. Time after time, you think you have measured the sum of it, and time after time, it proves to be more than you thought. It may yet lose this playoff series to the Penguins, but for the life of it, it will not go easily.
It has some disadvantages, okay?
The Penguins are a rebuilt team without Sidney Crosby of Evgeni Malkin, but they are rebuilt for playoff success with a roster chocked with veterans.
Remember, the Lightning had nine players — 10, counting call-up Mattias Ritola — who had never played in an NHL playoff game. The Penguins dressed out a dozen players on Wednesday who have 40 games each — a half-season's worth. That has to play some part of what we are seeing in the way the Lightning has failed to defend its home ice.
Perhaps, too, it has something to do with the lingering struggles of Steven Stamkos, who found himself in front of the Penguins net with five minutes to play. The puck was on his stick — a pass from Marty St. Louis — and the net looked like a freeway tunnel.
And Stamkos missed … well, he missed everything. He may have missed gravity.
I know, I know.
Stamkos is still a kid, and no, you shouldn't expect him to carry a team this time of year. If he is a star, however, then shouldn't he show up somewhere along the way?
That's the thing here. You get the feeling you are watching an older, wiser team take advantage of the places where the Lightning is not ready. They have won three games, two of them by a single heartbeat.
Is the Lightning resilient enough to win three straight games and join the 8.7 percent?
Not unless it grows up in a hurry.