The arena, packed to the rafters with 20,545 rabid fans, pumped with anticipation. Moments before the Lightning took the ice—a 3D video projected on to the ice—firing up the crowd even more and it reached crescendo when their hockey team arrived on scene.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, playoff veterans, have seen this all before. The Lightning, boasting nine playoff newcomers, had not.
After world renowned tenor Daniel Rodriguez finished his stirring rendition of the national anthem you almost had to ask yourself, "How in the world can the Lightning follow THAT up?"
The answer—they couldn't.
For five minutes, the Lightning were taking crazy chances, throwing caution to the wind, making an extra pass here, throw a check there. They wanted the big hit, the highlight reel SportsCenter goal. They wanted to please their fans.
The Pittsburgh Penguins wanted to win a hockey game.
"Maybe you get too excited," left wing Simon Gagne told the St. Pete Times. "You maybe want to be a little more physical and you get out of the game plan. From then on it's not the way you want to play."
After Lightning forward Steve Downie left his skates and delivered a devastating blow to Pittsburgh Penguin defenseman Ben Lovejoy, the Lightning were caught watching the crowd reaction and allowed Maxim Talbot to slip into their zone untouched.
Can the Lightning overcome their playoff inexperience?
Talbot fired a laser beam that Lightning goaltender Dwayne Roloson saw all the way but failed to make a save on and Tampa Bay found themselves down 1-0.
Just 45 seconds later, playoff first-timer Victor Hedman went to deliver a big hit on Penguin Mike Rupp but whiffed, creating a 2-on-1 that resulted in an easy tap in goal for Arron Asham.
Lightning coach Guy Boucher called a timeout and settled his troops down—but the damage had been done.
"To be able to get the lead, get the two goals," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma told the AP, "I think was big for us and big for our mindset."
To their credit, the Lightning battled back. Once again, special teams nearly swung the game back into Tampa Bay's advantage as they were perfect on the penalty kill, pushing the Penguins to 0-for-15 on the power play in the series.
They added two goals by Marty Mouse and Martin St. Louis on the power play, the second tying the game 2:12 into the third period.
The veteran Pens would again school the Lightning. With Tampa Bay pushing to capitalize on the momentum and take the lead, the Penguins countered and crashed the net.
Thirty-one seconds after St. Louis tying goal energized the building, a wild scrum in front of Dwayne Roloson saw the puck squeak out and Pens forward Tyler Kennedy batted it into an open net, sucking the air right out of the building.
"We talked about it to make sure we had our emotions in check," captain Vinny Lecavalier told the Times, "It's good to work hard, but you have to work in the right way."
For the Lightning, it was a tough lesson to learn. All that was gained by the Game 2 win in Pittsburgh has been lost and the Bolts have their backs up against the wall.
Game 4 could be for their playoff lives.