TB star almost ended Flyers' season

Updated: May 21, 2004, 12:23 AM ET
Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA -- Vincent Lecavalier struck early in the first period and again in the opening minute of the second.

These Lightning bolts took the electricity away from the desperate Philadelphia Flyers but it wasn't enough to end the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday night.

Instead of advancing to their first Stanley Cup finals appearance in 12 NHL seasons, the Lightning are heading back to Tampa to prepare for Game 7 on Saturday night after an Orange-Crushing 5-4 loss in overtime.

No fault lies with Lecavalier, who was stellar from the opening drop of the puck.

The Tampa Bay forward scored 1:28 into the game and then netted the tying goal 45 seconds into the middle period to spark a rally that gave the Lightning a 4-3 lead -- an advantage they let slip away with 1:49 left in regulation.

Lecavalier has come a long way since a December benching by coach John Tortorella.

The former No. 1 pick in the NHL draft has four goals and two assists in the first six games against Philadelphia. That outburst came on the heels of a five-goal, two-assist performance in Tampa Bay's sweep in the second round against Montreal.

"In the Montreal series, things went great and that's where I really got my confidence," said Lecavalier, a Quebec native.

Back in the winter, the 24-year-old alternate captain turned the puck over on a drop pass and drew the ire of the fiery Tortorella. Lecavalier compounded the problem by publicly accusing Tortorella of holding back his creativity.

That led to a one-game benching.

But in what was the biggest game in Lightning history, Lecavalier was the star Tampa Bay expected he would be when he was picked first in 1998.

"Vinny played extremely well, and we need his game on Saturday," Lightning forward Tim Taylor said. "It doesn't matter who has stepped up or who has done what throughout the series. That has no bearing on what Game 7 is going to bring.

"Now we're not looking at the past, what guys have done or what they haven't done. It's all about Game 7 and what we're going to do."

After a Philadelphia turnover at center ice early in the first period, Lecavalier streaked down the right side on a two-on-one with Ruslan Fedotenko, and rocketed a shot high into the net past Robert Esche.

The Flyers owned the rest of that period and took a 2-1 lead into the second period.

Lecavalier struck again.

For a second time, he got the puck in neutral ice and made several shifty moves to create space as he crossed the Flyers blue line. He let go a slap shot that whizzed past Philadelphia defenseman Mattias Timander, who unintentionally provided a perfect screen of his goaltender.

Lecavalier made a habit of quieting the orange-clad crowd throughout the three games in the series in Philadelphia.

"He's played real well, both with the puck and without the puck," Tortorella said. "He's an important player for us."

In Game 3, after the teams split two games in Florida, the Flyers closed within 2-1 with an early third-period goal by Keith Primeau.

The Lightning could have been on the verge of collapse, but Lecavalier got loose in open ice, took a pass from Martin St. Louis, and scored a breakaway goal 43 seconds later to break the Flyers' momentum.

But then, that was just the latest rebound in this wild season for Lecavalier, who didn't record a point in five games in the first round against the New York Islanders.

"In the first series, they can critique my play but we won," said Lecavalier, who said he is playing the best hockey of his young career. "I've helped our team get into a great position."

With another game to play in the conference finals, the Lightning could use one more sterling effort from their mercurial forward.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press