-- WASHINGTON -- The Columbus Blue Jackets' epic winning streak didn't just come to an end, it fairly exploded into a million tiny pieces that floated gently onto the ice at the Verizon Center on Thursday night.
Bye-bye, 16-game winning streak. Bye-bye, date with history.
But in many ways the story isn't that the Blue Jackets lost for the first time in 17 games and were denied a chance at an NHL-record 18th straight win at home against the New York Rangers on Saturday.
And the story isn't even that the Blue Jackets' 16-game winning streak came to an end in such ignoble fashion, getting waxed by the Washington Capitals 5-0 in a game that was over by the end of the second period.
No. The story is what happens next.
Because even as the streak was building and the Blue Jackets morphed from "Hey, that's kind of weird" into the story of the season, rising from obscurity and irrelevance to the top of the NHL standings, everyone knew they were going to lose at some point.
No one expected them to win 61 straight games, right?
But having lost in such staggering fashion against Washington, the Blue Jackets remain the story of the league because how they respond to this loss and how they move forward from the end of the streak will tell us almost as much as what we learned about them during the streak.
This has been a season of streaking teams.
When Columbus beat the Minnesota Wild on New Year's Eve, it stopped Minnesota's 12-game winning streak.
How the Wild respond moving forward will, likewise, help define their season.
Another darling of the first half of the NHL schedule, Philadelphia reeled off 10 wins in a row.
What has happened since is a cautionary tale.
Since seeing their streak ended, the Flyers have managed to win only once in eight games. They're 1-5-2 over that stretch and have now fallen back toward the bottom of the playoff bubble in the Eastern Conference.
In short, the Flyers are in a free fall.
Their goaltending has been peerless with Sergei Bobrovsky, who'd won 14 straight games before getting yanked 5 minutes, 36 seconds into the third period after giving up five goals on 23 shots Thursday, regaining the form that saw him win a Vezina Trophy in 2013.
The defense is young and mobile.
The forward group is, taking a page from the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, four lines deep and chockablock with speed and skill.
They boast the league's top power play and, although one can't expect them to continue to roll at 28 percent efficiency, there's no reason for them not to finish in the top five in power-play efficiency.
So, it's clear the tools are there to stay on the rails.
Where the big test will come is between the ears.
How much of a letdown will there be with Thursday's loss?
Columbus players spoke about how they had tried to embrace the streak, enjoy it, but not get overwhelmed by it.
Now the Jackets have to prove they won't be overwhelmed by having the streak come to an end, not be rocked by returning to mortality.
Why do I think they'll be just fine?
Because there's no way Tortorella will let them sag, at least not for any meaningful amount of time.
A man who began the season with his reputation battered by last year's performance coupled with a disastrous 0-3 turn as head coach of the winless Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey has become the favorite at the midpoint of the season to win the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.
He was at times testy during the streak, as though understanding the kind of burden this kind of (almost) unprecedented success might become.
If there is one coach who will be able to shake his players back into form, it would seem Tortorella is that kind of guy.
"I trust the team," a surprisingly upbeat Tortorella said after the loss. "I think they've been honest with their play. I just trust the team. I think they have a dynamic in that room, and we talked about this: Don't hope you're going to win, know you're going to win. And I think we've crossed that bridge, ... that we know we're a good hockey club. Not one game is going to deter how we feel about ourselves.
"We've preached it, you can't worry about what just happened. We've got to move by this right away. We'll leave them alone tomorrow and we'll get ready for New York." The coach was referring to Saturday's home date against one of his former teams, the Rangers.
And then there's this. Getting whipped by the Capitals in the fashion they did might in fact be a better way to see the streak end than if the Blue Jackets had fallen in a one-goal game. They're ticked off.
And maybe that's not such a bad thing for a team determined to keep looking forward, and not back.