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Flyers 4, Lightning, 1 // BACK TO A LEVEL PLANE

John LeClair came back, in a big way.

Daren Puppa did not.

And neither did the Lightning, which tried Tuesday night but failed to deliver its third consecutive successful comeback to an all-time NHL-record crowd of 28,183 spectators at the ThunderDome.

The Lightning got behind the Philadelphia Flyers early and never made up enough lost ground, falling 4-1 to even their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series 2-2.

LeClair returned from an ankle injury to lead Philadelphia, scoring its first goal to put the Flyers up early and its fourth midway through the final period to squash hopes of a Lightning rally.

The best-of-seven series resumes with Game 5 on Thursday night in Philadelphia, where the Flyers and Lightning split Games 1 and 2 last week.

LeClair's impact could not be overstated, Lightning coach Terry Crisp suggested: "Did John LeClair score two goals? I rest my case. Let's not kid ourselves. He makes a big difference in the lineup."

"With or without me," LeClair said, "we're going to play a strong game. Everyone knew what was at stake."

LeClair and Joel Otto both scored in the first against Tampa Bay backup goalie Jeff Reese, who has made consecutive starts while Puppa recovers from a back sprain sustained in a violent second-period collision with LeClair in Game 2.

The opening period ended with Philadelphia up 2-0, giving the Flyers an 8-1 advantage in first-period goals through the first four games of the series.

The Lightning responded midway through the second period when Petr Klima scored on a power play with a wicked blast off a faceoff as Flyers goalie Ron Hextall moved left-to-right.

For a few moments, it seemed as if the Comeback Boys might pull off another one.

In Game 1, a 3-0 first-period deficit was too much to overcome in a 7-3 loss. But they rallied in Game 2, eeking out a 2-1 victory with Alexander Selivanov's OT goal. And they did it Game 3, rallying from two goals down to win 5-4 on a Brian Bellows shot in overtime.

A Rally 3 in Game 4, however, was not to be.

Oh, the Lightning had its chances after Klima had scored. Center Chris Gratton raced through the middle for a breakaway, but could not catch up to the puck. Defenseman Roman Hamrlik blasted one shot from the point, hitting a post behind Hextall, and wristed another that was tipped wide.

Nothing would go in.

And with three minutes and five seconds remaining in the middle period, Mikael Renberg intercepted a Michel Petit clearing attempt and slid a half-cocked shot/pass into the slot. Dale Hawerchuk re-directed the puck past Reese, scoring his third goal of the series and giving the Flyers a two-goal lead.

LeClair provided the last nail at 10:17 of the third, stealing the puck at the red-line and alone racing down the left side to beat Reese high glove side from the same spot that he delivered his first.

The Lightning continued to do what it has throughout this series, pounding away on Flyers center Eric Lindros in an all-out effort to fluster the Philadelphia superstar. Petit and Igor Ulanov both got in their shots, as did defenseman Cory Cross on a number of occasions.

But Lindros fought through the frustration, and with 51-goal scorer LeClair back, both made an impact.

"With him in the lineup, that line certainly dominates," Lightning captain Paul Ysebaert said. "He creates a little more room for Eric and vice versa."

"Not only that, but it means our defensemen have to back down off the (blue) line a little bit," wing Brian Bellows said. "And he works so good down low."

LeClair has made a living of making life miserable for the Lightning: With two on Tuesday, he has 15 goals and 25 points in 19 career games against Tampa Bay.

"It's just one of those things," LeClair said. "Everyone has a team the puck goes in the net against. It's not anything you do differently."

The former Cup-winner with the Montreal Canadiens went down in Game 2 with an ankle sprain after crashing into Puppa and a goalpost behind. He did not fly to Tampa with teammates for Sunday's game, but arrived after skating Monday in Philadelphia and getting medical approval to return.

LeClair rejoined linemates Lindros and Hawerchuk (who took over the Legion of Doom-line right wing for Renberg, who has been slowed much of the season by a pelvic injury and was back on a third line Tuesday), made his presence known early and displayed no signs of being slowed by the bad ankle.

LeClair scored his first goal of the game at 7:56 of the first period, with Chris Gratton in the penalty box for roughing: Lindros took a breakout pass from defenseman Eric Desjardins and barrelled down the left side; Lindros, taken wide by Lightning defenseman David Shaw, dropped a pass; LeClair took the puck at the top of the left circle and blasted a shot, beating Reese to the far side.

Nearly five minutes later, after LeClair scored his first, Philadelphia's Shawn Podein got the puck behind the net, wrapped around to the front and backhanded a pass through the crease to Otto, who was camped on the right corner of Reese's crease for a tap-in goal (his third of the series) that put the Flyers up 2-0.

"We definitely didn't play our best game out there, and I thought they played a real sound game," Bellows said. "I think we have to play a little more defensively, keep our discipline and hopefully, we'll get back into it."