TAMPA -- One of the narratives entering the Eastern Conference Final focused on the comparatively easier path the Tampa Bay Lightning had to the NHL's Final Four.
The Lightning were impressive in defeating the Detroit Red Wings, who finished with 93 points, in the first round and the New York Islanders, who earned the first wild card with 100 points, in the second round, taking each series in five games.
But some wondered what would happen when they faced stiffer competition.
Regardless of what you think of the Red Wings and Islanders, it's been abundantly evident in the past two games that the Lightning's opponent in the Eastern Final, the Pittsburgh Penguins, is a completely different animal. The Penguins dominated for the second game in a row on their way to a 4-2 victory in Game 3 of the best-of-7 series at Amalie Arena on Wednesday.
Although the Lightning were one shot away from winning Game 2 and taking the first two games of the series in Pittsburgh, they were badly outplayed for long stretches of that 3-2 overtime loss Monday. After a good opening seven minutes of Game 3, the Lightning had few answers again for the Penguins' relentless speed and depth, other than relying heavily on 21-year-old goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who made 44 saves.
Video: PIT@TBL, Gm3: Vasilevskiy stops Malkin's slap shot
"They're definitely a different team than the Red Wings and the Islanders," Lightning center Tyler Johnson said. "They're a fast-paced team. They have a lot of skill, a lot of guys that can really skate and play in the offensive zone, and their transition game is really good. It's definitely different."
With defenseman Anton Stralman a bit rusty in his second game back after missing more than eight weeks with a fractured left fibula and captain Steven Stamkos sidelined with a blood clot, the Lightning have appeared outmanned since the Penguins flipped the switch following a sloppy effort in a 3-1 loss in Game 1.
Like the New York Rangers and the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals did in the first two rounds, the Lightning are learning how much more there is to the Penguins than Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Pittsburgh's third line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel accounted for its first two goals Wednesday.
Crosby, who scored in overtime in Game 2, chimed in with a 4-on-3 goal on a feed from Malkin midway through the third period, and Chris Kunitz got one at even strength 2:22 later.
"They're a deep team, and those guys have found some chemistry together," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "If you're going to make a run in the playoffs, you can depend on a few games from some guys, but you've got to start getting scoring from your entire lineup, and they found a way to get some."
Video: PIT@TBL, Gm3: Hagelin nets rebound to give Pens lead
Hagelin's rebound goal with 10 seconds remaining in the second period was a dagger. The Lightning nearly got to the intermission tied 0-0 despite being outshot 21-6 in the period. Jonathan Drouin has been wonderful in helping fill the hole created by Stamkos' absence, but he made a poor decision in the Penguins zone in trying to pass back to the point and gave the puck away to Kessel, who started a 2-on-1 rush that led to Hagelin's goal.
Drouin finished the game playing on the fourth line after Cooper reunited his "Triplets" line of Ondej Palat, Johnson and Nikita Kucherov in the third period and shuffled around his other lines. Johnson and Palat scored goals after that, but it wasn't enough, and you got the impression after the game that Cooper doesn't plan to keep Palat, Johnson and Kucherov together for Game 4 on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).
"You just can't rely on the same bunch of guys the whole time," Cooper said. "So, those guys will be together again; sometimes they will, sometimes they won't."
Other than "The Triplets," the Lightning generated little offensively Wednesday. After the first seven minutes, they spent much of the night pinned in their zone by the Penguins' relentless pressure.
The shot attempts were 78-50 for the Penguins, including 56-36 in the second and third periods.
Video: Murray makes 26 saves as Pens claim 2-1 series lead
"Especially in the second period, they got rolling," Stralman said. "It's hard to win games when you give up  shots."
If not for Vasilevskiy, who filled in again for the injured Ben Bishop (lower body), the final score would have been far more lopsided.
"It's extremely disappointing to give up 48 shots in your home building in a playoff game," Cooper said. "That's unacceptable. So I just feel bad for [Vasilevskiy] that he's keeping us in there and we're not finding a way to bail him out."
If they didn't before, the Lightning know very well now the quality of the opponent they're facing. They know too that if they can't find a way to fix what's gone wrong in time for Game 4 on Friday, they're in danger of being run out of the series in five games.
"I know we can play with these guys," Stralman said. "They're a really good team, but so are we. We just have to take care of the games a little better."
The Lightning have overcome a lot of already, so it's easy to believe them when they say they believe they can turn around this series. They feel they belong here.
Now, they've got to prove it.
"I've said it before: You don't fluke your way to the Final Four," Cooper said. "They've got a heck of a team over there. They put their skates on one at a time just like we do. We've been here before and we've been in these situations before. Now, it just puts a little pressure on us to win Game 4."