TAMPA - In the seconds before it all went wrong, before the play was botched and the game was lost and the disappointment set in, there was an instant when the night rested on the stick of Martin St. Louis.
When you get down to it, really, isn't that all the Lightning has ever wanted?
St. Louis had flashed across the blue line, and once again, he was the quickest player on the ice. Only free space and the net were in front of him, and for the moment, both seemed obtainable.
It was still in the first period, and the Lightning trailed by only a goal, but at the moment, that seemed subject to debate. St. Louis was open, and Cory Stillman slid the puck across the ice to him in a perfect strike, and St. Louis cocked, and . . .
. . . Nothing.
St. Louis, the essential player of the Lightning, shot wide on the essential shot for his team, and for the first time in these playoffs, the Lightning did not recover. Tampa Bay finally lost the opening game of a series, 4-1 to Calgary on Tuesday night, and for the first time, the Lightning finds itself trailing in a series.
And once again, it is time . . .
For St. Louis.
Let's be honest. Being down by a game in a best-of-seven series isn't exactly the deepest hole a team has ever dug for itself. If anything, the Stanley Cup moved a couple of inches toward the Northwest. The Lightning stumbled on that tricky first step. Just that.
On the other hand, a loss in Game 1 multiplies the need for the home team to win Game 2. Which, in turn, multiplies the pressure on St. Louis, the Lightning player in charge of the big moments.
Thursday night, more than ever, the Lightning needs St. Louis. It needs his flair, and it needs his fire. Once more, it needs him to be the best player in the league.
It is time. Until his third-period goal Tuesday, a too-little, too-late number that didn't change the fabric of a disappointing night, St. Louis had been skating on a rough patch of ice as of late.
To that point, St. Louis had gone 11 games with only one goal, a meaningless shot late in a 6-2 loss to Philadelphia in Game 2. Going into the final period against the Flames, St. Louis had missed his last 30 shots. True, St. Louis had 12 assists along the way, and his team won two series, so no one was complaining.
This game was different. St. Louis had his share of open ice, but he didn't convert. He seemed a bit frayed by the size of the night, to tell the truth.
"I thought Marty had the yips a little bit with the puck early on," coach John Tortorella said. "I thought that was a very important play when Stiller sent him in and Marty shot it right away and it went wide. Hopefully, maybe one of those plays works for us and changes the complexion of the game."
Given the size of the game to come, who else would you bet on to change things?
That's what St. Louis did against the Islanders, remember? Back in the first playoff series, a thousand years ago, New York outplayed the Lightning in the opener despite losing, then won Game 2 easily.
After that game, St. Louis questioned his team, talked of a lack of hunger, of desperation, of guts. He talked of lofty goals and high standards and improved intensity.
The Lightning responded. More than that, St. Louis responded. He was a blur the rest of the series, scoring four goals in three games as the Lightning won easily.
That, you thought at the time, that was the reason he is favored to be the league MVP.
For the Lightning, for St. Louis, this situation is as urgent. It is better to juggle chain saws than to fall behind 2-0 going into Calgary. The Lightning has to be sharper, crisper. It needs to play as if it is no longer celebrating the victory over Philadelphia. Dave Andreychuk called it a must-win. That sounds about right.
And if it's a must-win game, it's a must-lead night for St. Louis.
It never changes, the pressure on St. Louis. When another Lightning player scores, it is treated like the most amazing of surprises.
Was that Vinny Lecavalier? How nice for him.
Was that Brad Richards? He's having a good playoff run, isn't he?
Was that Ruslan Fedotenko? Good for Rusty.
It is different with St. Louis. He is expected to score. The more difficult the situation, the more other faces in the locker room turn toward his. That's the way it is for the best player on a team.
The thing is, St. Louis seems to love this kind of pressure. Great players always do. He is a player who has had to scramble up a cliff to get his recognition, and as much as any player in the room, St. Louis is aware of his surroundings.
Around here, no one asks about St. Louis' size anymore. Just the size of the game in front of him. You want to be the MVP? Remind everyone why.
St. Louis, the Lightning's player of heart, its player of Hart, needs to be the star of the show. He needs to make the speech. He needs to sound the charge. He needs to score the goals. He needs to claim the game.