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Philadelphia 4, Tampa Bay 1 // FLYERS RETURN TO A LEVEL PLANE

John LeClair came back, in a big way.

Daren Puppa did not.

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

"We can't expect to play catch-up playoff hockey every night," said wing Brian Bellows, the Lightning's hero of Game 2. "It's bound to catch up with you."

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

Game 4's opening period ended with Philadelphia up 2-0, giving the Flyers an 8-1 advantage in first-period goals in the series.

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.

LeClair's impact could not be overstated, Lightning coach Terry Crisp suggested: "Did John LeClair score two goals? I rest my case," Crisp said. "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 period against Tampa Bay backup goalie Jeff Reese, who has made consecutive starts while Puppa recovers from a back sprain sustained in a violent collision with LeClair in Game 2.

"I thought he was going to be ready for this game," Crisp said of Puppa. "He went to tighten his skates (Tuesday) morning, and his back tightened up again."

The Lightning loosened up midway through the second period, getting a power-play goal from Petr Klima with a blast off a faceoff that caught goalie Ron Hextall moving 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. They ralled in Game 2, eeking out a 2-1 victory with Brian Bellows' OT goal. And they did it in Game 3, rallying from two goals down to win 5-4 on Selivanov's shot in overtime.

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

Oh, the Lightning had its chances after Klima 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 3 minutes, 5 seconds remaining in the middle period, after an unusual Philadelphia timeout that preceded a critical penalty kill, Mikael Renberg intercepted a Michel Petit clearing attempt and slid a half-cocked shot/pass into the slot. Dale Hawerchuk redirected the puck past Reese, giving the Flyers a two-goal lead.

"That was the turning point," Crisp said. "When we gave up that third goal, the guys never really seemed to recover. You could see the bench _ the starch (was gone)."

LeClair finished the job at 10:17 of the third, stealing the puck at the red line and racing down the left side to beat Reese high glove side from the same spot 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.

Both teams were penalized 12 times for 24 minutes, including a total of 18 minutes in roughing infractions, but the Lightning felt as if its indiscretions were costlier.

"That's lack of discipline and an area we need to address," Crisp said, "but that's a risk you take when you are trying to play with enthusiasm."

"Sometimes emotion and frustration gets the best of you as a player," Lightning captain Paul Ysebaert said. "It's a game of emotion."

Lindros overcame his frustrations, as did 51-goal scorer LeClair.

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

"Not only that," Bellows said, "but it means our defensemen have to back off the (blue) line a little bit, and he works so well 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 one of those things," LeClair said. "Everyone has a team the puck goes in against. It's not anything you do different."

The former Cup-winner with Montreal went down in Game 2 with an ankle sprain after crashing into Puppa. LeClair rejoined linemates Lindros and Hawerchuk, displaying no signs of his injury.

LeClair scored his first goal with Chris Gratton in the penalty box for roughing, taking a Lindros drop pass at the top of the left circle and blasted a shot.

Nearly five minutes later, Philadelphia's Shjon Podein got the puck behind the net and backhanded a pass through the crease to Otto to put the Flyers up 2-0.

"We definitely didn't play our best game out there," Bellows said, "and I thought they played a real solid game. We just have to play a little better defensively, keep our discipline and hopefully get back into it. . . . We just have to rally the boys, and get them back in it."

The Lightning knows rallies, even though it did not on Tuesday.