CALGARY - They were weary. They were wounded. There was no way they could be expected to walk away from this.
They had lost their hottest offensive player. They had lost their most punishing defensive player. They were down to gristle and bone.
Still, they won.
Their offense was fading. Their stars were flagging. The lineup had turned into a patchwork quilt.
They faced the thin air of Calgary. They faced the volume of the fans in the Saddledome. Most of all, they faced a Flames team that could smell blood in the water.
Still, they survived.
Of all the games they have won, of all of the memories they have provided, this was the best moment of all for the players of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Never has the stage been so high, and never have they had so much to overcome. Never has this team clung so desperately to so thin a lead in so vital a game for so long a time.
For the Lightning, there have been more stylish victories, more lopsided. Never has a victory been so impressive, and never has one been so important.
"I'll put it this way," coach John Tortorella said. "We found a way to get it done. Ugly as hell, but we found a way."
One more cliff, one more comeback. The Lightning beat the Flames 1-0 to even the Stanley Cup final Monday night at two games each. It is a best-of-three series now, and if it goes the distance, two of the games will be in Tampa.
After this display, you have to like the Lightning's chances. For two years, we have watched the skills of these players blossom, and we have seen the maturity level rise. Until Monday, however, we did not see what sort of competitors the Lightning players have become. Something is in there, something hard, and it enabled them to salvage this game.
Who would have blamed the Lightning for losing this game?
Turns out, the Lightning would have. And isn't that the point?
Monday morning, the players discovered they would be without Ruslan Fedotenko, who had scored seven goals in his previous nine games. Fedotenko was injured when hammered into the boards by Robyn Regehr in Game 3. With Martin St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier struggling to find the net, Fedotenko's absence seemed huge.
Then, just before the game, Fedotenko's teammates learned that Pavel Kubina also would miss the game. Kubina has blossomed into an excellent defender in these playoffs, and without him, you might have expected the air to drain from the room. Losing two of its best players was a lot for the Lightning to absorb in the hours before a game this critical.
Still, the Lightning evened the series with players named Ben Clymer and Martin Cibak, fresh up from the junior varsity. It won with superb goaltending and a scrambling, desperate defense that made one goal stand up for 57 minutes and 12 seconds. It won with a coach, Tortorella, who looked like a man trying to solve a crossword jumble.
It won despite an excellent night by Calgary goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff. It won despite repeated odd-man rushes by the Flames. It won without the doubts that seem to hover over this franchise, oh, every other game or so.
"Sometimes, you have to overcome adversity," forward Tim Taylor said. "It was a huge blow for us to lose those guys. But we considered this a must game."
Like every other roller-coaster ride, the Lightning thrill you as it climbs toward heaven. The air is clean, the view is good, and it feels as if you will soar forever. Then comes the plummet down, that frightening free fall toward earth. Gravity kicks in, speed picks up, and you'd swear you can see the end.
Six times now, the Lightning has lost in the playoffs. Six times, it has risen from the canvas to win the next game. But those are just numbers.
The memory of this game is not to be found in numbers, but in a team once again rising to the moment, swallowing hard despite the absence of two of its finest players.
Now, the challenge for the Lightning is to ditto its success. It has not won two straight games since the Montreal series. It has not felt in control of a series in a long time. A victory at home on Thursday night would go a long way toward changing that.
Still, it will not be easy. No one is saying when Fedotenko or Kubina will be able to play again. Add to that the late injury to Lecavalier, who suffered a gash on his forehead when hit on a particularly thuggish play by Ville Nieminen, who not only slammed Lecavalier into the boards but then threw an elbow into his skull. Even those who pardoned Regehr for his hit on Fedotenko - and the opinions seemed evenly divided - have to reconsider that hit now.
Regardless of who cannot play, it does not erase the importance of Game 5. Whoever wins it becomes a prohibitive favorite to win it all. Can you imagine either team winning two in a row when facing elimination?
For the Lightning, then, there are more obstacles. Fatigue. Injury. Pressure. Also, there is this: The Lightning has to rebound from its own success.
If that happens, if the Lightning can find in victory the same fire it seems to find in defeat, it will win this Cup yet.