TAMPA - In the desperate hours, Team Resiliency bounced back again Thursday night. Of course it did.
Catastrophe was in the air. Trouble was in the making. If you listened to the buzz, disappointment was being discussed.
When you get down to it, isn't that when the Tampa Bay Lightning is usually at its best?
The Lightning pulled itself off the ledge, and it pulled itself together, and it pulled itself back into the Stanley Cup final series against Calgary on Thursday. Fueled by its shortcomings in its previous performance, ignited by its previous lack of spark, the Lightning returned to being the plucky, persevering bunch we have seen for most of the season.
If that surprised you, well, you probably haven't been paying attention for most of the playoffs. At the worst of moments, the Lightning appears to be the best of hockey teams. Why would you expect any different this time?
As teams go, this one can take a punch. Toss a little adversity in the direction of the Lightning, and it bounces back like an echo across a canyon. Doubt the Lightning. Question it. Wonder if the season has exceeded its grasp. Do that and the Lightning will make you look silly.
"We don't dwell on things," defenseman Brad Lukowich said. "Sometimes, heartbreaking losses can stay with you. Dwell on those games and you feel as bad about them when the next game starts as you did when the last game ended. We tend to move on."
Five times in these playoffs, the Lightning has lost. Five times, it has come back in the next game to win. In those games, it has outscored its opponents 17-5.
This time, the final score was 4-1. That sounds easy, but it wasn't. It was 1-0 in the third period, and the Lightning had spent most of its evening in a short-handed scramble trying to cling to its lead.
For most of the night, Tampa Bay was outnumbered and outgunned. The Lightning was called for 10 minutes worth of penalties in the first 21 minutes of play. No one has served that kind of time since Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption.
It is no way to go through a must-win hockey game, up a goal but down a player. The Lightning would get a player thrown into the pokey, and the Flames would rush the net, and the Lightning would go into that frantic, frenzied struggle to keep the puck out of the net. Somehow, it would escape. If you remember nothing else from this game, remember the sight of the Lightning scurrying out of harm's way. It is a perfect metaphor for this team. There are times it seems trouble has finally come to the Lightning. And somehow, through the desperation and the urgency, the Lightning has found a way to turn it away.
In a way, the Lightning is like the fighter who rallies at the sight of his own blood. It invites you to wonder about it, and then it makes you look silly for ever bringing it up. It gets itself stuck in the mud, and then it digs itself out.
This time, it played away the memory of the series' ugly opener, when half the Lightning still seemed to be playing against Philadelphia and the other half seemed to be overwhelmed by playing in the final. By nature, hockey teams are finely tuned; if a sparkplug misfires, the whole engine sputters.
"After a game like that, you don't want to look in the mirror," defenseman Nolan Pratt said.
How does a team work its way out of that sort of funk? How does it muster something special after nothing at all?
It looks toward goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who has refused to buckle the entire playoffs. Each time he has been mortal, he has been bulletproof the game afterward.
It looks toward Ruslan Fedotenko, who scored the first goal on his rebound. Of course it was on the rebound. This is Team Rebound.
It looks toward defenseman Dan Boyle. You think you have had a bad week? Boyle was down a game in the Stanley Cup final, and his house caught fire. Yet, Boyle scored the "What do you think about Game 3?" goal Thursday.
You could go on and on. There is a depth to this team, a heart that belongs to a fighter. Every time the room gets dark, it manages to gather itself and to right its situation. It gets out of more predicaments than Houdini, and it has more lives than Dracula.
The more you watch the Lightning, the more the games look like those old movie serials, the ones where every episode ended with the good guy tied to the railroad tracks as the train picked up speed. After a while, it didn't surprise anyone when that guy kept getting away. After a while, it shouldn't surprise anyone that these guys keep doing the same thing.
"It says something about our character and about our consistency," Martin St. Louis said. "We don't lose two in a row very often." You cannot kill this team. You cannot chase it away. What's the line Gene Wilder used to describe Mongo in Blazing Saddles? "If you shoot him, you'll just make him mad." What does all this portend for the future? It's hard to say. The Flames have established themselves as a tough day at the office. For the Lightning to salvage this series, it must be even sharper than it was in Game 2.
Of course, a little desperation wouldn't hurt, either.