A reason for concern or merely a small bump in the road?
That's the question the Lightning is asking itself today as it boards a plane to play a game it never wanted to play Saturday night in Montreal. That game is now necessary because it dropped its broom while trying to sweep the Canadiens out of the playoffs in Thursday's Game 4.
The Canadiens showed up, as promised, and the Lightning did not. The result was a 6-2 mauling that keeps this series alive.
"We had a great opportunity to close them out," Lightning center Brian Boyle said. "Not a lot of positives there. We got to learn from this."
So, a reason for concern or merely a small bump in the road?
In the grand scheme of things, you would still rather be the Lightning than the Canadiens. After all, in a best-of-seven series, you would rather have three victories than one right now.
So just bump in the road for the Lightning, right?
Well, not so fast. True, it's one game, and it's hard to imagine the only team in the NHL that didn't lose three games in a row all season is now set up to lose four in a row. But the Lightning is not playing its best hockey at the moment. Not by a long shot.
Montreal probably should have won Game 1 and absolutely deserved to win Game 3. Tampa Bay won both only because of sensational work by goalie Ben Bishop, who was yanked after giving up three goals in less than half a game on Thursday.
What does it matter which team has looked better? Well, the best way to predict the immediate future is to examine the very recent past. And if the first four games have shown us anything, it's that the Canadiens, quite frankly, have been better than the Lightning.
"It's not even so much what they're doing," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "It's our lack of execution, our compete and our structure. When we stray from that, this league is too good to just go out and win hockey games on skill."
Part of you wants to cut the Lightning a little slack for losing Thursday. It had managed to beat the Canadiens and the best goalie on the planet eight consecutive times. It's hard to jump on it for finally losing to Carey Price and his mates.
In addition, after Wednesday's emotional Game 3 victory when Tyler Johnson scored with 1.1 seconds left, you figured Tampa Bay would exhale while Montreal would muster up one heck of a death rattle to keep its season alive.
The more disturbing trend, however, is the Lightning's tendency to let off the gas when you think it is in control. It happened in the last round against Detroit. It kicked away Game 5 at home after a miracle come-from-behind victory in Game 4 at Detroit. Unexpectedly, the Lightning had to rally from a 3-2 deficit to win that series.
Same thing here. Despite all its talk about putting its best skate forward Thursday, the Lightning could not carry Game 3's emotions into a Game 4 victory. All the Lightning had to do was put its boot on Montreal's throat and close out the series. Instead, the Lightning let the Canadiens up and now will have to chase them back to Montreal.
The greater fear for Tampa Bay is now that Price has broken the Lightning's hex over him, he will get his mojo back. This isn't Petr Mrazek, the kid Detroit threw out there in the last round. This is Price, who not only can steal a game but an entire series.
You can't help but let your mind play tricks on you if you're the Lightning. Now it's back to Montreal and a Game 5 against a suddenly-recharged Habs team that will feel quite at home in front of their rabid fans at the Bell Centre. A Lightning loss there and now you're staring at a Game 6 where all the pressure will be on Tampa Bay to avoid having to go back to Montreal for a winner-take-all Game 7.
Every game played from now on is a game the Lightning doesn't want to play, while the Canadiens would relish each opportunity.
And if you want to really talk about mind games, there's this whole business of being on the wrong end of a trivia question about which teams have blown 3-0 leads in a best-of-seven series. It has only happened four times in Stanley Cup history.
A reason for concern or a bump in the road?
More doubts come rushing in. The Lightning is generating very little offense, particularly at even strength. Stamkos still has just that one goal in the postseason. Where is Bishop's head and game after getting pulled in Game 4?
"We're up 3-1 in the second round of the playoffs," Boyle said. "I like where we're at."
The Lightning likely needs to lose again before it starts looking for the panic button. Until we see more, that means Thursday night's Game 5 was just a setback, just a bump in the road.
But — spoiler alert — we will see more. That bump came in a road that now feels like a long one, one that will continue up to Montreal and wind back here again for a Game 6 Tuesday night.
Now that would be a major concern.