PITTSBURGH -- This was supposed to be their shining moment, the one that had occupied their days and nights and all of their time for almost all of their lives. They had thought about this, about taking the ice, about being announced, about playing in the biggest game of their lives, for years. They had thought about it while sweating and pushing and hurting, giving everything they had to hockey. It had been their goal for more years than they can remember.
The San Jose Sharks had been waiting so long. The players -- Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Marc-Edouard Vlasic -- had been members of a franchise known for futility when it counted. But now they were here in the Stanley Cup Final. There were others, too, who had waited: Paul Martin, Brent Burns.
Only Dainius Zubrus, 37, had been here before and played, though Martin Jones had a prime seat on the bench for the Los Angeles Kings when they won the Stanley Cup in 2014.
So maybe that was it. Maybe the lights and the sounds and the pressure were overwhelming at the start. Maybe that was what slowed them in the start of Game 1 on Monday, a game they went down early to the Pittsburgh Penguins before falling on a goal late in the third period to go down 1-0 in the best-of-7 Stanley Cup Final. Maybe that was why San Jose coach Peter DeBoer could only describe his team in the context of describing one of his lines, as "off a little."
"I think the first period was tough," Burns said. "It's the first time being in this experience. I don't know about other guys, but for me I spent three, four days thinking about it, trying not to let it distract you.
"It's a long time you think about that experience and getting the chance to do it. It's tough. You spend a lot of energy thinking about it and the legs felt that in the first period, that's for sure."
It wasn't the game day. It wasn't preparing to take the ice when he had felt that. It was in the days leading up, on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, when the Sharks had finished up their Western Conference Final series and the weight started to sit heavy.
"I just think it's the idle time," Burns said. "I think you're sitting there, laying in your bed, the old brain starts to wander. The ADD starts going all over the place. It wanders. It's hard to control that thing."
They felt the burden of so many years of training, so many years of anticipating, so many years of wanting and waiting and falling short. Burns recalled being three years old, four years old, playing in the Stanley Cup Final in the street, pretending and yearning, only hoping that someday … someday … someday …
And yet, in 12 seasons, Burns had never been past the second round, either with the Minnesota Wild or the Sharks.
So this? This was different. This was everything. This was, it seemed, too much at the start.
"I think the stage is obviously higher than where we have been," Couture said. "Maybe you saw that in the first period. We weren't prepared for it."
It got better in the second. It got rocky again in the third. But nothing was like that opening period, when the moment that had been so long anticipated went so very, very wrong.
"It's hard to say if it played a part or not," Pavelski said. "We were excited to play. We felt we were ready. Then, at the start, we didn't execute the way we needed to. We try to take that lesson and learn from it. Hopefully we can have a better start.
"Obviously it's exciting to be here. I don't [care] if it's your first time or your fifth time, I'm sure it's exciting every time. So we'll learn from that game and hopefully have a better start."
There was, perhaps, a sense of awe -- at the situation, at the surroundings, at the stage -- even for a team that has played in the playoffs so often, that has been through round after round. They hadn't been here. It can no longer be awe, though. Now it needs to be urgency.
Because now they know what it's like. Now they are ready. Now comes Game 2 at Consol Energy Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports). Now, there are no excuses. They should not be in awe. They have all now played in a Stanley Cup Final game. The wait is over.
Like Burns said, "You just get used to it. Now you're in it, so it's a little easier."
It will have to be. Or this dream finally realized will quickly turn to a nightmare.
"I think getting over the first period is big on that," Burns said. "Now we're in it. Now we play."
by Amalie Benjamin @amaliebenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer