For Lightning, next game is the toughest

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- One game. That is all the Lightning say they need. One game and everything will be different ... maybe.

But that is where it has to start.

"It was a coach's decision,'' Khabibulin said. "I'm fully behind the guys, and all I want to do is go out and win the series. I'm not going to say anything."

Asked of Khabibulin's reaction, Tortorella said, "I didn't stick around for a response. It was a very quick conversation with both, and away we go.''

Khabibulin has been inconsistent against the Devils, has allowed 12 goals and has yet to make that game-turning save. It was particularly acute during Game 4 when he allowed two goals on New Jersey's first five shots, and let Scott Gomez's shot from the slot slip through his legs.

With the Lightning down three games to one and facing elimination, it was time to shake up the troops.

"Nik has played hard. I'm not begrudging him anything,'' Tortorella said. "We just feel we want to give Johnny a whack at this. He has answered the bell for us at crucial times before. This is a situation that we want to go into and give our team a different look.''

Grahame, acquired in January from the Bruins for a fourth-round draft pick, held the fort when Khabibulin went through a dismal stretch during the regular season. But he hasn't played since the final game of the regular season, a 6-2 loss to the Thrashers.

"You want to be in these situations,'' Grahame said. "When you have to win, you want to be the person who provides that. It's a challenge."

It is going to be a media firestorm whether Tampa Bay wins or loses. A win and Tortorella is a genius, but it opens up all kinds of questions about Khabibulin's future with the team. Lose and those questions increase five-fold. Khabibulin has one more year on his contract, and there is a team option for 2004-05.

"If we lose, you guys are going to have a ball with this,'' Tortorella said. "Go with it. I don't care. It comes down to the hockey club. ... Is this a conventional move? No, I'm not going to say that. I really don't care. All I care about is tonight's game. We win tonight's game, and I'm very confident about that, things change. What comes down the road after that, the personality conflicts, we'll deal with them. That's the way we operate."
-- Damian Cristodero

Tampa Bay, in the playoffs for the first time since 1996, is in a desperate situation. Trailing the New Jersey Devils three games to one in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Lightning must win three consecutive games to keep their season alive. Game 5 is Friday night at Continental Airlines Arena.

How tall an order is that?

Forget for a moment that New Jersey's trap has held Tampa Bay to just seven goals in the series' first four games. Forget that whiz kid Vincent Lecavalier, who had 78 points in the regular season, has no goals and one assist, and Vaclav Prospal, who had a team-high 79 points, has just one goal.

And forget that goalie Nikolai Khabibulin has looked ordinary in allowing 12 goals and has had, maybe, two outstanding games through the playoffs.

Forget all that and look at history.

Only 18 teams have come back from a 3-1 series deficit, and no team has ever overcome 2-0 deficits twice in the same season. The Lightning did it against the Capitals in the quarterfinals.

Still, you win one game and, suddenly, anything is possible. Just ask coach Lightning coach John Tortorella.

"We can beat them there," he said of facing the Devils at Continental Airlines Arena. "We know what we have to do, and there is no reason why we can't go in there, beat them and change everything. Nothing has changed in our approach. Make sure you understand that. The series is not done."

For emphasis, he added: "I have no doubt we're going to keep this series going."

"It could be our last game, so let's give everything we have,'' center Tim Taylor said. "Empty the cell, so to speak, and make sure we leave everything on the ice. We won four straight (against Washington) so winning three is not that difficult. Winning one game will be the hardest part.''

To do that, some things need to change for Tampa Bay. The team needs a return to the hard-hitting, hard-skating style that sparked it to a 4-3 victory in Game 3.

Not easy. The Devils' trap puts up many road blocks. But that is where a few body checks and an aggressive forecheck can loosen things up. The Lightning also must strive to get more shots at Devils goalie Martin Brodeur and more traffic in front of him.

Maybe most important, Khabibulin must be better. The goalie hasn't been bad. He just has not made game-turning saves. Game 4 was a perfect example. Khabibulin was hung out to dry on turnovers by captain Dave Andreychuk and defenseman Dan Boyle, leading to first-period goals by Scott Gomez and Patrik Elias

Khabibulin had a good look at Gomez's shot and let it slip through his legs, and Elias' goal was New Jersey's second on five shots and gave the team a 2-1 lead en route to a 3-1 victory.

"I have no problem with our work ethic,'' Tortorella said. "It's just a matter of they made some mistakes and we didn't score a goal. We made mistakes and it's in our net. It's such a fine line in close games. They capitalized and we didn't.

"I think everybody on our team wants to do it. I think some of the guys are having problems totally understanding just how to do it; not through wanting but understanding. The Devils have a better understanding. They've been through it."

But the Lightning have been resilient this season, and even New Jersey's John Madden is not ready to write Tampa Bay off.

"We're in good position, but the series is far from over,'' he said. "We've watched Tampa Bay win four in a row off Washington. I was very surprised to see that, so I give a lot of respect to them and would not count them out of the series by any stretch."

"We're going to put everything out there,'' Lightning center Brad Richards said. "We have nothing to lose. Absolutely nothing. No one expected us to be this far. Just give it one last shot and bring it back (to Tampa for Game 6). If we can do that, we can cause a lot of trouble."

The Lightning will cause a lot of trouble if their big guns can start firing. Consider that its 70-point scorers -- Prospal, Lecavalier, Richards and Martin St. Louis -- have combined in the series for just three goals and five assists.

Maybe Tampa Bay's players just needed a break. This is, after all, the first time the team has played hockey in May and the first time it has broken the century mark in games. It has played 101: nine preseason, 82 regular season and 10 postseason.

A previously scheduled day off gave the team a chance to sleep late Thursday before getting on the team plane for Jersey. There was no video session (maybe some video games instead), and the players attended a team dinner.

"We took the day off and regrouped,'' Taylor said. "We have to find a way to feel good about our game and be ready. We have to have a lot more desperation. If guys aren't scoring, they have to be checking.''

"That's a big part of what this game is,'' Tortorella said. "Do you look at the light at the end of the tunnel and say, 'It's enough,' or 'Let's extend this.' I believe our guys are looking forward to the opportunity.

"I know they don't want it to end. We've been together as a group too long to just go out and play it out. We consider this is going to be a long series, and I believe we're going to go up there and win that hockey game and bring it back to Tampa."

Damian Cristodero covers the Tampa Bay Lightning for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.