TAMPA — When discussing Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final with the Bruins, Lightning players had several accurate, if not unique, ways of describing a contest that might be the turning point of the series.
"An important game," wing Sean Bergenheim said.
"A big game," defenseman Mattias Ohlund said.
But no one called the game a must-win — that is, except coach Guy Boucher, who used the term to compromise the idea.
"It's always a must-win," he said. "It's a must-win because it's the beginning of the series. It's a must-win if you don't win the first game. It's a must-win because it's 1-1 or 2-0 for the opponent. They're all must-wins."
But Game 4 today at the St. Pete Times Forum might really be one for Tampa Bay.
If the Lightning wins, the series is tied two games apiece. If Tampa Bay loses, it will be behind 3-1 in the best-of-seven series and facing elimination in Game 5 on Monday in Boston.
There is something to be said for the way Tampa Bay overcame a 3-1 deficit to beat the Penguins in the East quarterfinal. But the Bruins are a different animal.
"Yeah," wing Ryan Malone said, "it's a big bear."
Jokes aside, the Bruins are a more complete team, a more physical team with a better goaltender, and a team that, unlike Pittsburgh, can score.
That makes the difference between 2-2 and 3-1 enormous. It also makes Game 4 a must-win for the Lightning, doesn't it?
"You never want to go down 3-1, but it's the playoffs, so every game should be desperation," Malone said, sidestepping slightly. "Play hard, smart and stay even keel. It's a long road."
"It's four out of seven," Boucher said. "One of these two teams has to win four. It's not two, and it's not three. So we're still expecting a long series."
If that is to happen, Tampa Bay needs to make some improvements after Thursday's 2-0 Game 3 loss in which it seemed slower on the attack.
"We were slower," Boucher said. "We're a team that's used to driving the net extremely hard. Guys are relentless, usually going to the net and having their sticks heavy there and fighting, and we weren't as good."
Tampa Bay also is losing the puck-possession battle, and that starts with losing faceoffs. The Lightning won just 60 of 138 the past two games, a worrisome 43.5 percent.
And when the team did have the puck in Game 3, it did not get enough traffic in front of Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas, mainly because it could not consistently get through the Bruins' box-out defense.
"We have to throw pucks at him from everywhere," Malone said of Thomas, "take his eyes away, like we do in every other series."
"We know that they're going to come out hard the next game, and we've got to be ready for that," Bruins right wing Michael Ryder said. "It would be nice to go home 3-1, but it's going to take our A game."
Bottom line, Ohlund said, "it's a challenge. We've been challenged, all of us, tons of times. It's no different (today)."
Except Tampa Bay must win.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]