PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference finals; Lightning lead 2-1.
TIME: Saturday, 3 p.m. EDT.
Scoring the first goal has become essential to the success of the Philadelphia Flyers.
Even that may not matter if Robert Esche doesn't bounce back from one of his worst games of the playoffs.
Esche and the Flyers hope to rebound from a disappointing performance and even the Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 4.
Coming off an impressive 6-2 victory in Game 2 and playing in front or their home fans for the first time in 11 days, the Flyers seemed poised to take control of this series Thursday.
Tampa Bay, however, beat Esche with two soft goals in the first period and Nikolai Khabibulin rebounded from a dismal performance in Game 2 with 24 saves in a 4-1 victory.
Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards added third-period goals for the Lightning, who lead the best-of-seven series 2-1 after improving to 5-0 on the road this postseason. Tampa Bay has outscored opponents 17-5 in five road playoff games.
"I think sometimes teams that play at home get caught up in thinking they have to put on a big show for the fans and try some big hits," Lightning center Tim Taylor said. "Sometimes, those big hits leave you out of the play. I thought that's what we tried to do in Game 2. We got down and right away the game was over."
Scoring first is always important, but doing it on the road takes on added meaning because it usually prevents the crowd from becoming a factor.
"We wanted to score first in this building and it just goes to show you in a series if you can score first, often it sets up a better night for your team," said Cory Stillman, who staked Tampa Bay to a 1-0 lead with his second goal of the playoffs.
A slow start doomed the Flyers, who have scored first in 11 of 14 playoff games, winning nine. They are 0-3 when falling behind 1-0. The Lightning, meanwhile, are 8-0 in the postseason when getting the first goal.
Philadelphia, which had won all six home games this postseason, played at the Wachovia Center for the first time since Game 5 against Toronto in the semifinals on May 2.
"We've been away from home for a while. It's like coming off a road trip," Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said. "What I mean by tentative is sometimes you're so hungry that your puck movement at times is a little bit tentative, we got hemmed in our zone, then we got scored on, so now you're trying to scramble back from that."
After he was pulled in Game 2, Khabibulin was under pressure to be much better Thursday. He responded with an outstanding performance, stopping all 13 shots in the second period and allowing only Keith Primeau's goal 36 seconds into the third.
"I tried to relax," Khabibulin said. "I don't really think about what anyone else thinks about me. I think I felt normal for this game."
Excluding Game 2 of this series when he surrendered four goals on 12 shots, Khabibulin has allowed 11 goals in 11 games during the playoffs.
Now the heaviest burden in Game 4 falls on Esche, who allowed four goals on 26 shots, including the first two he tipped with his glove but was unable to stop from sneaking into the net.
Esche was particularly angry about the first goal of the game that Stillman scored on a fluttering wrist shot from the right circle.
"There's no disguising it, it was a bad goal," Esche said. "When you give up a goal like that early in a hockey game, it kind of takes the wind out of everyone's sails. It's just something I have to be prepared for the next game."
Esche's Game 3 performance is just one of several concerns for the Flyers heading into Saturday.
Philadelphia went scoreless on five power-play opportunities Thursday and is in a 2-for-31 slump, dating to Game 3 against Toronto. The Flyers scored six power-play goals on 20 chances in the first seven games of the playoffs after having the NHL's second-best unit in the regular season.
"We're not outworking their guys," Flyers left wing Mark Recchi said. "They get it down the ice and we don't battle enough. We have to be a lot more determined on the power play."
Already missing defenseman Eric Desjardins, the Flyers learned Friday they will be without defenseman Marcus Ragnarsson for the rest of the playoffs after he broke his left index finger early in Game 3.
Rookie Joni Pitkanen, a healthy scratch the last two games, will take Ragnarsson's spot in Game 4. Ragnarsson's injury also assures that Sami Kapanen, regularly a forward, will remain on defense for the rest of the series.
"Ragnarsson has been tremendous," Hitchcock said. "He was arguably the best defenseman for the two teams. Now other guys have to step up."
The Lightning have won six of seven against the Flyers this season, including all four meetings in the regular season.
The series moves back to Tampa Bay for Game 5 on Tuesday.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Lightning - 1st seed; beat New York Islanders 4-1, quarterfinals; beat Montreal Canadiens 4-0, semifinals. Flyers - 3rd seed; beat New Jersey Devils 4-1, quarterfinals; beat Toronto Maple Leafs 4-2, semifinals.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Lightning - Richards and Lecavalier, 6 goals; Fredrik Modin and Martin St. Louis, 9 assists and 14 points; Chris Dingman, 39 PIM. Flyers - Primeau, 6 goals; Alexei Zhamnov, 8 assists and 12 points; Donald Brashear, 57 PIM.
PLAYOFF SPECIAL TEAMS: Lightning - Power play: 13.5 percent (7 for 52). Penalty killing: 88.1 percent (37 for 42). Flyers - Power play: 15.7 percent (8 for 51). Penalty killing: 87.7 percent (50 for 57).
GOALTENDERS: Lightning - Khabibulin (10-2, 4 SO, 1.31 GAA); John Grahame (0-0, 3.53). Flyers - Esche (9-5, 1, 2.24); Sean Burke (0-0, 1.50).