Commentary

Bolts, not B's, squander big opportunity

Updated: May 24, 2011, 2:31 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

BOSTON -- For most of this spring, Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher has been the smartest kid in the room.

On Monday night, though, he rolled the goalie dice, and strangely enough, it was the rest of his players who delivered the snake eyes in a crucial playoff encounter.

Despite hinting broadly that Dwayne Roloson would once again be his man after the goalie started in all 15 Lightning playoff games this spring, Boucher went to Mike Smith, who made his first Stanley Cup playoffs start.

Smith wasn't to blame for the Lightning's 3-1 loss to the Boston Bruins, but the move did not deliver the victory Tampa Bay craved and, in the end, likely deserved.

[+] EnlargeTim Thomas
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesBruins goalie Tim Thomas made 33 saves in Boston's 3-1 win over Tampa Bay on Monday.

In another strange game of a series defined by strange games, the Bruins rallied from an early 1-0 deficit and got clutch performances from their best players, despite being outshot and outchanced, to take a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference finals.

Boston netminder Tim Thomas was magical, turning aside 33 of 34 shots he faced. He made stunning stops on Steve Downie (twice) and Blair Jones to guide the Bruins to within one win of their first Stanley Cup finals berth since 1990.

Patrice Bergeron, the team's best player this postseason, made a brilliant cross-ice pass to Brad Marchand for the game winner. Bruins captain Zdeno Chara was a beast, jumping repeatedly into the play and picking up an assist on the winning goal in the second period.

Nathan Horton and linemates Milan Lucic and David Krejci, the subject of criticism after Saturday's loss in Game 4, responded with a stronger outing and were responsible for the tying goal early in the second period.

The fact the Bruins were outshot 34-20 and looked slumberous to start such a crucial game is now moot.

"Yeah, it was a frustrating period, that first one, but we knew when we went into the room we just had to clean it up a bit," Marchand said. "We had to focus and kind of relax. It just seemed like we were a little tense in the first period. ... I think we were a little worried about what they were going to do out there, and talk about Smith got in our head a bit."

What is not moot: Tampa Bay's once-potent power play sputtered (0-for-4) and its curiously disconnected attack bore little resemblance to the balanced, dangerous attack that erased a 3-0 deficit in Game 4 en route to a 5-3 victory.

Missed opportunity? Definitely.

Now the question is whether that missed opportunity will prove to be fatal with Game 6 set for Wednesday night in Tampa.

"That's the way you feel, you know. You feel that that game was up in the air for both teams," said Simon Gagne, who scored off a 2-on-1 with Steven Stamkos just 1:09 into the game. "We had a lot of scoring chances. Most of the [third] period, we spent a lot of time there. Again, our power play was not good enough. There was a lot of scoring chances for us to tie the game. That game was available for us. But, at the end, they got the best of us. Now they're up 3-2."

There isn't much to separate these two teams, and this series has been marked by wild swings, from game to game and period to period. But the Bruins proved what they've been saying since Saturday's loss: They can put the past behind them.

"I think they were mentally ready for the game, but sometimes the pressure slows you down a little bit," Boston coach Claude Julien said. "We kind of loosened up in the second period. We talked about it, and we knew we couldn't win the hockey game playing that way. So we had to loosen up, and our guys did a great job."

In the past, we have questioned the Bruins' killer instinct (hey, they did blow a 3-0 series lead and lost a year ago), but they were the ones who showed emotional integrity by getting past what could have been a devastating loss in Game 4.

The Lightning, masters at delivering the clutch goal and the clutch win all spring, could not find that Monday night.

"Yeah, it is tough. You don't win when you deserve to all the time, and that's the playoffs," Stamkos said. "The ones you deserve to win, you should win, and you have to win to be successful in the playoffs.

"We've been on both ends of the spectrum and we can't look at it like that right now," he added. "We've got to learn from that and regroup. We've got a great opportunity. We're coming back home, and it is a must-win game. We've been in that position before."

The Lightning sniper did set up the opening goal but had only two shots on goal. He has just one goal in his past six playoff games. Tampa captain Vincent Lecavalier was not his usual self; his evening was typified by a chance early in the third when he found himself with time and space in the slot and fired the puck right into Thomas' bread basket.

Boucher defended his top players, saying they were all victims of Thomas' strong play.

"So our top guys are doing everything they can, and they're no different than the rest of the team. We're still trying to figure out the Thomas enigma," Boucher said.

Maybe. But it strikes us as too pat of an explanation, too easy of an out for a game with so much on the line. And so, we return to Tampa for the first elimination game of the series. The Lightning survived a 3-1 series deficit in the first round against Pittsburgh. But those comparisons really serve little purpose other than to fill up notebooks.

The abyss into which they will stare is far deeper because this is a far better team than the one the Lightning faced in Pittsburgh.

The logical thinking is Boucher will go back to Roloson for Game 6. In fact, he said as much in explaining that the Lightning wanted to give Roloson a bit of a break,, which factored into Smith getting the start in Game 5.

"It wasn't something emotional at all," Boucher said. "It was something thought of methodically and it was unanimous as a staff, that we wanted to give a breather to Roli and give a chance to Smitty to participate in something he's been a part of."

In the end, though, it won't really matter who is between the pipes for the Lightning unless their best players seize the moment, something they didn't do in Game 5.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.