TAMPA — At times like these, you need a leader.
You need a star. You need someone to say, "Follow me, boys, and I'll show you the way."
You need someone who plays the game with heart and passion, grit and determination, fearlessness and tenacity.
You need someone who plays the game like Ryan Callahan.
The Lightning entered Friday's Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final in deep trouble. Down 2-1 in the series, holding on for dear life after looking like a chew toy the previous two games. It desperately needed a victory. But to get it, Tampa Bay needed a spark. It needed life. It needed something or someone.
That spark, that someone, turned out to be Callahan.
His goal 27 seconds into Game 4 set the tone. And his never-say-quit play throughout the entire 60 minutes drove the never-say-die Lightning to a crucial 4-3 victory that has the team very much alive and kicking in this series against the Penguins.
Callahan was a monster. The best player on the ice. All over the ice, that is. Offensive zone. Defensive zone. In the corners. Along the boards. In front of the crease.
"I go to the dirty areas," Callahan said.
His presence was so overwhelming that you swore that half the Lightning team was wearing No. 24.
Callahan scored a goal. He forechecked relentlessly. He threw bruising checks. He played smart and suffocating defense.
Add that all up and the 31-year-old provided the veteran leadership that a team needs when its back is against the wall in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
And isn't that why the Lightning acquired him the first place? To play in games like these, when the series is in jeopardy and the season is on the line?
"Playing against him for many years, (I'm) obviously happy to have him on (my) team now," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "He lays it on the line every night. That's what you need on a winning team … just great energy."
Callahan delivered with the type of performance that has punctuated his 10-year NHL career and bolstered his reputation as one of the most reliable clutch players in the game.
"He's definitely one of those guys who when he steps up and elevates his game, scoring goals, playing physical, blocking shots, all those things that really feed a lot of energy to the team," Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. "That's the type of character he is. He's definitely one of our most important players."
Callahan might not be the swiftest skater or have the hardest shot or possess the offensive skills of a Steven Stamkos or a Sidney Crosby. But when the games have elevated importance and a play needs to be made — whether it's scoring a timely goal or sacrificing your body to block a shot or getting a bloody nose to get in the way of a runaway opponent — Callahan is your man.
He was the man Friday night.
"You can't say enough about Ryan Callahan and his positive effect on our team," coach Jon Cooper said.
Needing a fast start to slow a Penguins team that was carrying all the momentum going into Game 4, Callahan deflected a Hedman wrist shot past Penguins goalie Matt Murray at the 0:27 mark of the first period.
Fast start accomplished.
"That's the start we needed," Cooper said.
"You heard the building," center Brian Boyle said of Callahan's goal. After that, Callahan continued to lead a Lightning team determined to send the series back to Pittsburgh tied at two games apiece.
Callahan's effort is only mildly surprising because of what happened earlier in the week.
Just four nights earlier, as the Lightning was losing Game 2 in overtime, Callahan was back at the team hotel, so sick with the flu that he couldn't get out of bed.
"I felt good (Friday) and, obviously, I had more energy than the last game," Callahan said.
He was back to normal Callahan.
"To start out with a goal on the first shift (was big)," forward Jonathan Drouin said. "He plays the same way every night. He's an honest player. He's (ticking) off a lot of guys. It's definitely something you want. He's definitely someone you want on your team."
The victory didn't come without some chewed fingernails. The Lightning nearly coughed up a 4-0 lead, giving up three third-period goals in the victory. Nevertheless, Tampa Bay is back to square. It's now a best-of-three series.
That's good news for the Lightning.
Even better news?
It has Ryan Callahan suited up and ready to go for Game 5 Sunday night in Pittsburgh.