TAMPA, Fla. -- Will this be the 20 minutes that lives in infamy during Boston's 2011 Stanley Cup run, or will it be just another bump in the road for these resilient Bruins?
The Bruins played their worst period of the postseason Saturday afternoon in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, turning a three-goal lead after the first period into a 3-3 tie after the second. The Lightning scored two more goals – the game-winner by Bruin-killer Simon Gagne and an empty-netter by Marty St. Louis – in the third period to take the unlikeliest of 5-3 victories.
Now, instead of heading home with a commanding 3-1 lead in the series, the Bruins head back to Boston to begin a best-of-three showdown against a rejuvenated Lightning team bursting with confidence after Saturday's heroics.
"It's 2-2 (in the series)," said Boston goalie Tim Thomas, who allowed three goals in a 3:58 span of the second period. "I don't know what the use of worrying about (Game 4) would be. I think the focus should be on winning the next game."
After the carnage was complete, most of the Bruins stressed looking ahead, not behind to a litany of bad plays, breakdowns in communication and instances of being outworked.
"You have to clear the memory," said Patrice Bergeron, who had two goals during the three-goal first period that appeared to have put Tampa Bay on life support, just 40 minutes away from a third straight loss.
But that's easier said than done. Even the Bruins admit they were monumentally bad in the middle period.
"When you are up, you almost sit back a bit," forward Brad Marchand said. "You think the game is over and that's what we did. We thought we had them. We took it for granted. We didn't use it to our advantage and we didn't keep pushing forward and that is what we should have done."
Added Thomas, "We got outworked; they took over and outplayed us. They started getting scoring chances and we stopped getting scoring chances.
Boston started the game in dream-like fashion. After winning Game 3 with a dominating 2-0 performance, Boston ran off the first three goals of this game -- two by Bergeron and a pinball shot by Michael Ryder -- and chased starter Dwayne Roloson after just nine shots in the first 17:58.
But things went off the rails pretty quick for Boston, which blew a three-goal lead to Philadelphia in Game 7 of last year's Eastern Conference Semifinals, losing on a goal by Gagne, who had the winner here Saturday afternoon, too.
Boston failed to score on either of two power plays to open the second period and allowed replacement goalie Mike Smith to find his groove.
Still, there was little reason to panic when Teddy Purcell opened the scoring after a turnover by Zdeno Chara behind the net. Boston still had a two-goal lead with only 33 minutes left. But when Purcell scored again – this time on an absolutely wicked wrist shot that handcuffed Thomas – just 63 seconds later, full-on panic had descended upon the Bruins.
"After they scored a few goals, we almost looked like we were paralyzed out there," coach Claude Julien said. We just weren't reacting, weren't moving and it just snowballed from there."
The paralysis only intensified when Sean Bergenheim exploited defensive lapses by Tomas Kaberle and David Krejci to tie the game at 10:53.
Suddenly, the Bruins' dreams of heading back to Boston needing just one win in the final three games of the series were as battered as their bodies and psyches as they trudged into the visitors dressing room for the second intermission.
Bergeron summed the carnage up best.
"I thought it was a terrible second (period)," he said. "We have to be better."
After surviving another Tampa Bay flurry to start the third period, Boston buckled for the final time when Gagne scored the game-winner, his sixth goal in his last eight playoff games against the Bruins.
On the play, Tampa Bay took advantage of a failed clear after a Kaberle block and a lucky bounce after Dennis Seidenberg blocked an initial effort by Ryan Malone. It was the type of broken play that typified the final 40 minutes of Saturday's game.
Will they be better in Monday's Game 5 at TD Garden? Can they put the psychological scars of Saturday's meltdown in the past?
Only time will tell, but the answer has to be yes if Boston doesn't want to spend the summer ruminating on another blown opportunity to reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1990.
"You have to realize you have to be better, you have to execute," Bergeron said. "It's not good enough. That being said, we can't feel sorry for ourselves. They are a good team -- and so are we. It's a long series. We just have to make sure we go back to what was given us the success."