Lightning loosens its grip in power struggle

Published April 19, 2007

TAMPA - In the end, they were not desperate enough. They were not sharp enough. They were not disciplined enough.

Most of all, the players of the Tampa Bay Lightning were not quite vicious enough.

Presented with an opportunity to step upon the necks of the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday night, the Lightning somehow missed. One minute, there was a skate poised somewhere over Martin Brodeur's Adam's apple, and the next, there was an un-nicked neck.

As quickly as that, everything has changed in the series, and the Lightning can only wonder how it all slipped away, the opportunity and the home ice and that gurgling sound that had been coming from behind Brodeur's mask. The Devils won 4-3 in overtime, and now the series is tied at two games apiece.

A victory by the Lightning here, and it was all but over. Another win, and Tampa Bay would have had a 3-1 lead in the series, and it would have been time to ask the waiter for a check. With Brodeur as shaky as he ever has been in the postseason, it would have been difficult to imagine the Devils winning three in a row.

Given those kinds of stakes, given a comeback from two goals down to tie, given a power play chance in overtime, a team has to be able to put away a testy opponent at home. In hockey, it's called finishing. The Lightning could not.

For a team in the Lightning's position, there were too many shortcomings. There were too many penalties and too many turnovers. There were too many missed opportunities and too many unchecked defenders in the mouth of its goal. In the beginning of the game, there was too much energy by the Devils and too little by the Lightning to answer it.

For crying out loud, didn't everyone expect the Devils to come out in a fever? Yet, for the first 10:15 of the first period, the Lightning didn't get off a shot. For the first 7:15 of the second period, it didn't get off a shot. It drew seven penalties in the first two periods. There for a while in the third, the Lightning goal looked like a kids birthday party with a very large Johan Holmqvist pinata.

Still, the Lightning managed to get back into the game, mainly because Holmqvist was steady again and because of this shaky new kid the Devils have in net. You know, the impostor wearing Martin Brodeur's shirt.

Funny, isn't it, that only a week ago, everyone was ready to help Brodeur move his furniture into the Hall of Fame. He was Everest. He was Death Valley. He was Cerberus, the Devils' guard dog. He was one of those great defenders of the New York suburbs, and it wasn't a stretch to compare him to Lawrence Taylor or Derek Jeter or Walt Frazier or, for that matter, Serpico.

For much of the first four games, however, Brodeur has flinched like a man in a dunking tank. If he gives up any more three-spots, there is going to be a move to change his team's name to the New Jersey Devil Rays.

Even though his Devils won this time, Brodeur was vulnerable again for a while. There in the second period, Marty St. Louis scored, again, and Vinny Lecavalier scored, again, and suddenly, Brodeur was a matador. There hadn't been this much Lightning in a guy's head since the first Frankenstein movie.

Along with everything else, how much of those doubts did the Lightning let slip away?

We'll see. Brodeur did shut out the Lightning for the last 37 minutes of this game. On the other hand, everyone keeps expecting Brodeur to be great because there always has been something to prove: that he's history's greatest goaltender, that he's annoyed by the criticism, that he's determined to shake off a bad game or two or three or four.

The thing is, Brodeur is pretty good most nights. So are the Devils. There is a reason they were second in the Eastern Conference. So maybe you should have seen this coming. Still, if the Lightning loses this series, this may be the game that haunts it. There was so much to be won.

"We'll go back to work," Lightning coach John Tortorella said. "It's 2-2. Momentum swings. We have to try and grab it back when we get to New Jersey."

For the Lightning, that starts with more energy, with fewer turnovers, with fewer penalties. If it can manage that, yeah, it can get another opportunity.

Next time, however, it has to bury its chance. Also, its opponent.

Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805.