- Scott Burnside, NHL
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Rarely do you see an NHL team try so heartily to give away a playoff game and then fight so valiantly to steal it back the way the Tampa Bay Lightning did Saturday afternoon.
This game was off the charts "Looney Tunes" as the Lightning fumbled and bumbled their way to a 3-0 first-period deficit, then abruptly awoke and scored three to tie it in the second. Designated Bruins killer Simon Gagne potted the winner in the third to tie the Eastern Conference finals at two wins apiece.
You'd need some extra large graph paper to chart the emotional highs and lows for both teams in this tilt, ultimately won 5-3 by the Lightning.
"Obviously we didn't want to dig ourselves too deep of a hole. It's now the best-of-three, and we know nothing's really been accomplished and they're going to be ready, and it's going to be a battle here to the end," said Ryan Malone, who had perhaps his finest game with the Lightning.
It was Malone's thunderous hit on Boston captain Zdeno Chara behind the Bruins' net in the second period that helped set the stage for the Lightning's unlikely comeback.
Chara had been allowed to play the puck with impunity through most of the first period, but Malone lined him up a number of times in the second.
On the play in question, Malone's hit staggered Chara and allowed Gagne to find Teddy Purcell in front to make it 3-1 at 6:55 of the second period.
Purcell scored again 1:03 later. Sean Bergenheim tied it at 3 less than three minutes later. It was Bergenheim's league-best ninth postseason goal.
Malone also had a hand in the game-winner in the third, as he made a deft pass to Gagne, who beat Boston netminder Tim Thomas through a screen. Gagne has six goals in his last eight playoff games against the Bruins.
Lightning coach Guy Boucher had high praise for the former Pittsburgh Penguin who returned from injury at the start of the playoffs.
"He was, I think, very eager to help the team. He's a warrior. He pays the price in so many areas. Sometimes you notice, sometimes you don't notice it," Boucher said.
"We notice it every game and every shift he plays. He inspires this team. And I think tonight, I gave him one of our two stars for sure, because I felt that he was part of the guys that really inspired the rest of the group. He's one of those guys that you never know when he's going to make a difference, and it could be with a body check, could be with a goal, could be with heavy stick in front of their net. He has just been terrific for us and continues to be, so we rely on him heavily."
After Game 3's 2-0 victory by the Bruins, Thomas indicated he had a pretty easy time of it, something the Lightning took exception to and vowed quietly to change in Game 4.
And they did just that.
"We're expecting seven games, and last game when their goalie says he has an easy game, that's our job to make sure we get in there, take his eyes away and make it hard on him. I thought tonight we did a lot better job of getting bodies in front of him and whacking away at those pucks around his feet," Malone said.
Now comes the great part of the playoffs.
Both teams have about 48 hours to digest what happened, the good and the bad, the highs and lows, and get back on the horse with Game 5 on Monday night in Boston.
Certainly, Tampa will be hoping to avoid the series of brain cramps that allowed the Bruins to score three times in just over six minutes.
It is hard to imagine a series of more gruesome plays in a conference finals.
With 8:13 left in the first period, defenseman Victor Hedman's no-look pass to defensive partner Brett Clark skittered past Clark onto Patrice Bergeron's stick at the side of the net. Bergeron quickly tucked the puck between netminder Dwayne Roloson's pads -- 1-0 Bruins.
Less than two minutes later with the Lightning on a power play, Steven Stamkos gave up the puck to Patrice Bergeron, who beat Roloson five-hole from well out -- 3-0 Bruins.
At that point Boucher pulled Roloson.
But instead of climbing the walls between periods, Boucher remained calm and collected, and the Lightning responded with a virtuoso performance in the second.
"We kind of created what they had. It's a bit different than if you were just strictly playing poorly. It's just a case of sticking with it," forward Dominic Moore said.
Boucher lamented the number of lapses that contributed to the Bruins' lead but noted they are a team whose reputation is built on being resilient.
"We just gave them, again, just like the previous game in the first period, we gave them three gifts, three turnovers," Boucher said. "And they're a very good team. They capitalize on those. And it's our job to make sure those are out of the way for the next game. But if you know that you've got legs, and you've got ammunition, you just stick to it, because eventually it should pay. But it's a great comeback."
By the end of the second, it was the Bruins who were reeling. Perhaps they expected the rest of the game to pass without interruption after building a three-goal lead.
"Well, I would call it probably more we just lost our focus here," Boston coach Claude Julien said. "Played really well in the first period not because of what the score was, but we did the right things. And we took that lead. The message was pretty clear. We had to continue playing the same way. But somehow we started getting stretched out again. They started getting speed. They started getting momentum. And after they scored a few goals, we almost looked like we were paralyzed out there. Just weren't reacting, weren't moving, and just snowballed from there."
Monday night, we'll find out whether all that wackiness was a defining moment in this series or just a footnote.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.