It was a tale of two games. The Lightning dominated the first 30 minutes, while in the second half the Flyers played with the intensity you would expect of a proud and veteran team.
That ebb and flow, to and fro' was what many expected in this series from the outset. Instead, it took the severity of a Game 5 to bring it out on both sides, and Tampa Bay's strong start was just enough to hold on for a 4-2 win and a 3-2 series lead.
Playing at home, the Lightning pushed the pace from the initial puck drop, and only the brilliant goaltending of Robert Esche kept the game close. The Flyers looked scrambled in their own zone and less than formidable on offense, even when enjoying a 4-on-3 power play.
Curiously, the power play would provide one of the differences in this game, but on the Lightning side of the ledger. Ruslan Fedotenko put home his own rebound after a nice play entering the zone by Dave Andreychuk to defenseman Darryl Sydor to give the Lightning a first period lead.
In the second, Brad Richards cashed in on a 4-on-3 power play in the first minute, with the Lightning executing perfectly in gaining the zone and setting up Richards for the isolated one-timer. Shortly thereafter, Richards rifled home another power-play tally off a face-off in which Andreychuk won the draw and Cory Stillman picked his man and tapped the puck to Richards, who was all alone in the high slot.
Lightning coach John Tortorella's game plan to play more physically worked to perfection. It neutralized the Keith Primeau effect and had the Flyers reeling. The only problem was that 30 minutes remained.
In the span of a minute, the Lightning gave up a breakaway to Branko Radivojevic and goals to Michal Handzus and Patrick Sharp. Suddenly, a foregone conclusion became addled with doubt. As veteran Tim Taylor assessed, his team showed its immaturity.
From that point on, goaltender Nik Khabibulin took center stage. From five feet to 50 feet out, the Lightning's singular strategy seemed to be "let Nik see it," with "it" being the puck. He stopped everything the frantic Flyers cast his way, saving 15 shots in the third period alone. When the barrage subsided, Taylor tallied into an empty net, and finally the result was clear.
In all, the goaltenders faced the inordinate total of 42 scoring chances combined, divided equally. Those chances were, for the most part, further partitioned into halves -- the Lightning ringing them up through the first period and a half and the Flyers pressing through the final half of the game.
All of which sets the stage for an intriguing Game 6 in Philly on Thursday. The Lightning accomplished the goal of winning the game, but held on dearly to do so. The Flyers -- battered, bruised and facing elimination -- have to feel they had the Bolts on the run.
Momentum? It's a concept easily shattered in this series overall and in this game in particular. Flyers' Coach Ken Hitchcock termed the swings "unnerving," and you got the sense that more twists and turns are forthcoming between these two teams.
1. Khabibulin: Simply sensational when his team provided a big lead but didn't know what to do with it -- not an easy task for a goaltender.
2. Pavel Kubina: An exquisite example of competitiveness and competency in marking Flyers' captain and catalyst Primeau all nigh long.
3. Esche: Under siege early, he made more dazzling saves in 20 minutes than he had the entire series.