Darren Eliot
Thursday January 20th, 2005

PHILADELPHIA -- Forget about Lightning coach John Tortorella saying Wednesday that his Flyers' counterpart, Ken Hitchcock, "should keep his yap shut." It meant nothing with respect to this game.

What did resonate was what he said prior to this series: The victor come playoff time gets superior goaltending, big plays from its best players and has the opponent commit an untimely error. On Thursday night, Tortorella's comments came to life as his team responded to the Game 2 drubbing in impressive fashion.

For it was Nikolai Khabibulin again playing brilliantly in goal for the Bolts, while at the other end Robert Esche surrendered two first-period goals, neither of which should have hit the big board. Then, early in the third, after Keith Primeau -- far and away the Flyers' best player -- had cut the deficit to 2-1, Martin St. Louis hit Vincent Lecavalier at the center-ice button, springing him on a breakaway. Lecavalier roofed the puck over Esche's glove hand to restore the two-goal advantage ... less than a minute after Primeau had put the Flyers within striking distance.

Now that is a prime example of a timely play by a team's top players -- St. Louis firing a perfect pass from the left wing half wall and Lecavalier finishing the play. It stemmed not only the potential momentum of the Primeau goal, but as well the tide-turning forechecking pressure established almost single-handedly by Primeau in the second half of the second period. He pulverized every Lightning he could, including Cory Sarich, whom he dispatched to the locker room on two occasions in the second.

Sarich came back, though, to put in some much needed minutes in the third. He came back the way his entire team did from the loss in Game 2. The difference is that Sarich wasn't necessarily at his best in the third period, whereas the Bolts as a team were absolutely at their best most of this night. They started the game impeccably, looking like the team that had routinely run through NHL opponents the last four-plus months.

Even without the excuse-me markers courtesy of Esche, the Lightning in the first period exhibited the perfect balance between energy and execution. The task at hand was both a challenge and an opportunity and the Lightning met and seized accordingly. After the morning skate, Tortorella said that a team coming off a resounding defeat has to return to its identity immediately. Some call that coach-speak, while others refer to that trait as composure. Sports psychologists prefer the term situational awareness.

In any case -- no matter how you phrase it -- this Lightning performance was impressive, maybe even definitive.

1. Nikolai Khabibulin: Outstanding at critical junctures of the game.

2. Darryl Sydor: Battled hard in every one-on-one situation and was particularly effective on the penalty kill.

3. Martin St. Louis: He made two beautiful passes in the third period that led to goals -- decisive plays when they mattered most.

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