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The party began early for Lightning fans, and it ended the same way

John Romano | Once the banner-raising ceremony was finished, the rest of the night was a drag in a 6-2 loss to Pittsburgh.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) looks up after the Pittsburgh Penguins scored the first goal of the game in the second period Tuesday at Amalie Arena.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) looks up after the Pittsburgh Penguins scored the first goal of the game in the second period Tuesday at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Oct. 13
Updated Oct. 13

TAMPA — They looked oddly solemn as they stood on the ice and watched the evidence of their glory.

The music was soaring, the crowd was rocking, and the championship banner was slowly drifting up toward the Amalie Arena rafters Tuesday evening. And through it all, Lightning players stood in a ragged line on the ice with faces that were harder to read than the names etched on the Stanley Cup itself.

Maybe they were reflecting on the season that was now officially over, or maybe they were just focused on the season about to start. Either way, they watched the ceremony with impassive stares and impressive stoicism.

And then they played a hockey game with about the same effort.

“It was just a dud,” captain Steven Stamkos said.

That’s one way to put it. Disappointment would be another. The Lightning lost their season opener 6-2 to Pittsburgh, and that barely explains how one-sided the game was.

“It was like we were stuck in mud all night,” coach Jon Cooper said.

Now before you get too concerned, this team has plenty of capital stored up around here. You win two Stanley Cups in succession, and you’re allowed to have an off night. Or even an off month or two.

The bar has been raised so high that even a season opener filled with pomp and circumstance pales in comparison to the intensity and rigors of playoff hockey. And no team has played as much postseason hockey as the Lightning in recent seasons.

When you think about it in that way, the night did serve two distinct purposes:

Raise the banner, and lower expectations.

Turns out, both were done splendidly.

“Hopefully, that’s just a little bit of a wake-up call for our group,” Stamkos said. “You’ve got to go out and execute. We had success the last two years for a reason, and we didn’t show that (Tuesday).”

I’ll say it again, this is not meant to throw cold water on the 2021-22 season. The Lightning remain top-heavy with star power and should still be one of the better teams in the NHL.

But you already had the sense that the regular season could be a bit of a chore, and Tuesday night’s effort and results did nothing to change that expectation. There’s the natural inclination for a two-time champion to dial it back while waiting for the playoffs, and there’s also the added time it will take for the remade third and fourth lines to mesh.

In that sense, the next few months might provide a little more intrigue than what we’ve been used to seeing. The Lightning romped through the regular season three years ago, they grinded through it two years ago and they seemingly coasted last season.

Now, their lineup has a new look and maybe even a new vibe. Some of the more colorful players of the Stanley Cup run have moved on because of salary-cap constraints, and it will be fascinating to see who steps up to fill the void.

The early returns were not conclusive. The effort was so lackluster it was hard to pick out anyone other than goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy as having a decent night. Even without injured stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins completely dominated the Lightning. They had more scoring chances, they won more faceoffs, they had fewer giveaways.

And, of course, they won on the scoreboard.

“We were flat, we weren’t hungry, we lost battles,” said forward Pat Maroon. “It was just one of those things. It was day one, and we’re going to throw that tape out. We’ve got to move on and we’ve got to realize no matter who is in the lineup, it’s going to be hard every single night.”

The sad thing is that the crowd came ready for a party. Seats were filled and voices were raised. They hung in there through the first two intermissions but finally began filing toward the exits with the score 3-0 early in the third period.

They came for a show, and they got about 15 minutes’ worth. And then the puck dropped.

Lights, camera, subtraction!

The Lightning are missing a lot of familiar faces and names, but a new adventure awaits.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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