Thursday January 20th, 2005

Caveats flew faster than the sweat-soaked socks and jerseys players tossed into laundry bins in the Lightning dressing room after Game 4. Tampa Bay's 1-0 win was, shall we say, a less-than-artistic affair, and the Lightning almost sounded sheepish about escaping Calgary with the Stanley Cup finals tied at two games apiece.

Center Tim Taylor: "We feel good about this win, but we didn't play particularly well."

Center Brad Richards, who scored the game's only goal on a 5-on-3 power play less than three minutes in: "This wasn't pretty but it was a big win."

Even Lightning coach John Tortorella, who apparently is staying up nights brainstorming ways to be petulant during his sessions with the media, flashed a rare sincere insight: The game, he said, was, "ugly as hell."

That goes for the series as a whole, which has devolved into a quagmire in which putting the puck in the net has become an afterthought for everyone. This has been less a series than a collection of discreet events. Neither team has generated momentum that carries over from one game to the next. Forget about back-to-back wins. The Flames and Lightning are struggling to put together consecutive inspired efforts.

That should change -- let's hope it does -- tonight in Game 5, for two reasons. One, the Lightning return home with a chance to seize control of the series. They can best do so by returning to the "Safe is Death" style of play that got them to the finals.

Two, the Flames are beginning to pay a price for the physical tactics they've used to slow Tampa Bay down. Calgary has concentrated on battering Tampa Bay's forwards. The plan worked in Game 3, a 3-0 victory. It backfired in Game 4, when the Flames frittered away the scoring chances that fell into their laps while the Lightning were dusting themselves off. Several odd-man rushes -- golden second-period chances by Jordan Leopold and Chuck Kobasew come to mind -- were short-circuited when the Flames missed the net with shots.

Such mistakes are unforgivable for a team that's overmatched when it comes to offensive firepower. Tonight, the Flames will be missing one of their key weapons in the thuggery department. Ville Nieminen was suspended for boarding Vincent Lecavalier late in Game 4. The discipline drew the ire of Flames coach Darryl Sutter, who unwisely suggested on Wednesday that the league was out to get his team.

Sutter's comments drew the ire of commissioner Gary Bettman, who released a statement defending the integrity of his office. The league also is likely to ensure that the referees will keep closer tabs on Game 5 than guards do during outdoors time at Leavenworth. True, the Flames have been more dangerous offensively short-handed in this series than they have been at even strength. But if they can't play their physical style and drag the Lightning into a mud-wrestling match, they're at a serious disadvantage.

I expect Game 5 to be the most wide-open match of the series so far. That means the Lightning should be playing for the Cup on Saturday in Calgary.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.