PITTSBURGH -- The Tampa Bay Lightning will know in a game or two if they waited until it was too late. Whether they failed to take advantage of their one true advantage over the Pittsburgh Penguins until the series was effectively decided.
What the Lightning know for sure -- now that they've embarrassed the Penguins on their home ice for the second time in as many games there -- is that experience only goes so far in winning a series.
Star power matters, too.
Steven Stamkos, nearly invisible for four games amid speculation he was injured, lit up the Penguins' suddenly shaky defense for a pair of goals and an assist, Simon Gagne also scored his first two goals and the resurgent Tampa Bay Lightning rolled over Pittsburgh 8-2 in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals on Saturday.
Tampa Bay's second successive easy victory in Consol Energy Center -- the Lightning own a 13-3 scoring advantage in the last two games here -- sends the series back to Tampa for Game 6 on Monday with Pittsburgh up 3-2. But it's a shaky advantage.
"This series is not over. We stayed alive for one more game, and that's what we wanted," Stamkos said.
The Penguins won Games 3 and 4 at the St. Pete Times Forum by identical 3-2 scores, the second in two overtimes, to set up a potential series-clinching Game 5 on home ice. But everything they did well on the road fell apart for them at home, where they are 0-5 in potential series-clinching games under coach Dan Bylsma the last three seasons.
Was this bad loss a mere glitch, or one of those 'Uh, oh' moments in which everything about a series suddenly switches?
"It's not something we've had a lot of success in," Bylsma said. "It's difficult to close a team out. They're playing to the last breath."
Apparently, not even an admonishment by Bylsma's son, Bryan, that it was time to clinch a series at home could motivate the Penguins to finish off a series in front of their fans.
The question now is whether Tampa Bay has the advantage or not being at home for Game 6. Road teams have won 22 of their first 36 games in these playoffs, a repudiation of the home ice-means-everything theory. NHL teams endure 82 regular-season games to gain such the advantage, only to discover it might not help them at all.
"I'd love to answer that one -- me and the rest of NHL coaches are scratching our heads wondering what's going on," Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher said. "It's what's happening everywhere. Everyone says got to win games at home, and that puts pressure on you to absolutely to win at home, and that might make you play tight.
Just ask the Penguins. The six-goal margin of defeat was their worst ever in a home playoff game, topping three earlier losses of five goals apiece. And it could have been worse -- Tampa Bay led 7-0 following a pair of Pavel Kubina power-play goals early in the third.
Mike Rupp ruined goalie Dwayne Roloson's shutout bid by scoring less than a minute after Kubina's second goal, the fifth goal of the series by the Penguins' fourth line, and Chris Conner added a second goal. Not that it mattered.
What Boucher liked is he didn't see a lot of smiles afterward, as he did when the Lightning, who have nine players with no previous playoff experience, won Game 2 by 5-1 in Pittsburgh.
"We've got to reload real quick, or there's no smiles, no nothing," Boucher said. "The last time we came here, I think we made the mistake -- of a young group of individuals who don't really know how to manage the playoffs yet -- of being happy to win the game. Right now, we're not happy to win the game. We just want to go out and get ready for the next game.
With a motivated Vincent Lecavalier scoring once and setting up a pair of goals while often playing on the same line with Stamkos and St. Louis, the Lightning flashed their one undisputed advantage over Pittsburgh -- an edge in world-class scorers.
Since stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were sidelined with injuries months ago, the Penguins have successfully adopted a score-by-committee system; fourth-liner Arron Asham is their leading scorer in this round with three goals.
Such a plan works when a defense is stifling and the goaltending is superb, but Pittsburgh had neither quality in a forgettable game in which goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was pulled after allowing four goals on 14 shots. The Lightning had it all.
Except at the start.
As so often happens in potential closeout games, the home team came out strong and confident. The Penguins dominated the first 15 minutes, outshooting the Lightning 11-3 at one point, but couldn't convert two prime scoring chances that might have shifted the game their way from the start.
Ninety seconds in, the puck lay tantalizingly in the crease, unprotected, off Chris Kunitz's shot, but Gagne cleared the rebound. About 13 minutes into the period, defenseman Brooks Orpik's shot from the left point rebounded hard off the right post, creating a wave of "oh-h-hs" that echoed around an arena jammed with a Penguins indoor-record crowd of 18,535.
"We put a lot of pucks on him, had a couple of chances there right away, played well," Pittsburgh forward Pascal Dupuis said.
It didn't last. Following a flurry of give-and-go passes, Teddy Purcell's one-timer from the right circle struck the post and rebounded into the crease, where Gagne tucked it into the net at 16:57. Purcell also assisted on Kubina's two power-play goals.
An omen? Gagne was on the Flyers team last season that rebounded from a 3-0 series deficit to win four straight against Boston.
"We've got guys in this room who have been down 3-0, have been down 3-1 (and won)," Stamkos said, referring to Gagne and Roloson. "All you can say is win the next game, bring it back home and give yourself a chance. That's what we did."
That's what he did.
Stamkos, who had 45 goals during the season but wasn't a factor in the first four games after being leveled by Orpik's big hit early in Game 1, made it 2-0 just 46 seconds later.
Stamkos set up in front of the net -- neither Paul Martin nor Zbynek Michalek made much of an effort to move him out -- and he put a backhander past Fleury off the rebound of Steve Downie's shot from the left point.
"The difference today was we shot in instances where we didn't shoot before," Boucher said. "We've got tons of clips (from the first four games) of guys waiting at the net for shots that didn't come."
Stamkos, suddenly a force again, helped make it 3-0 by beating Martin to a loose puck behind the net and throwing it in front to Lecavalier for the former Stanley Cup winner's second goal of the series 1:55 into the second.
"It's hard to explain why some nights we're able to take care of them (rebounds) and some nights we're not," Martin said. "A couple of them went right to them in the paint and were tap-ins."
Gagne scored again following defenseman Kris Letang's turnover at center ice, causing Bylsma to replace Fleury with Brent Johnson. It didn't help -- Stamkos made it 5-0 on a power play as Tampa Bay put up three goals in the first seven minutes of the second period.
St. Louis, Tampa Bay's only reliable scorer with 4 goals in the first four games, didn't find the net but had a pair of assists, as did Downie in his return after he was suspended for Game 4.
The Lightning's four goals in 5-on-5 play were one more than they had in the first four games, when Pittsburgh held an 8-3 scoring edge at even strength. Dominic Moore also scored on a power play, at 15:35 of the third, as the Lightning went 4-for-7 with the man advantage to Pittsburgh's 0-for-6; the Penguins are 1-for-24 to date.
That might not matter if it had been a short series. But, thanks to the Lightning's desperation, this isn't a short series any longer.
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Martin St. Louis
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Martin St. Louis