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Late scoring spree shocks Lightning

Leafs score four goals in the third period to win 5-3. Clark hits the winner.

Lightning coach Steve Ludzik could only bury his hands into his face and rub his eyes as if trying to wipe away what they had just witnessed.

Goalie Dan Cloutier sat at his locker, his pads still attached to his legs, staring at nothing.

Center Vincent Lecavalier started to talk, then realized he didn't even know how to put his thoughts into words.

This is the look, the sound, the feel after a team loses a heartbreaker.

If there was any wind left in the Lightning's sails, it was blown away Tuesday night in what likely will go down as the most devastating loss in Ludzik's first season as coach of the Lightning.

The Toronto Maple Leafs overcame a three-goal deficit and beat the Lightning 5-3 before an announced 10,073 at the Ice Palace.

"No question," Ludzik said when asked if it was the hardest loss as an NHL coach. "I know people will look at the score in the papers and say, "What kind of effort was that?'

"But, you know what? We played a great, great game and I'm so proud of the effort. We had them. We had a great team on the ropes and we let them get away."

Tampa Bay built a 3-0 lead against Toronto and all-star goalie Curtis Joseph midway through the second, and led 3-1 going to the third, then watched in horror as an old teammate helped break its back. And its heart.

Wendel Clark scored two goals, including the winner with 5:45 left, as Toronto stormed back with four third-period goals, the final one an empty-netter.

"I don't even know how to describe this," Lecavalier said. "It's tough. I don't even know what to say.

"We were up 3-0 and if we get that fourth one, we bury the hatchet in them. We just couldn't put it away. It's disappointing. Real disappointing because we played so well early."

After Mike Sillinger's first-period goal, then goals by Pavel Kubina and Chris Gratton in the second, the Lightning held a 3-0 lead with less than six minutes left in the second period.

"(At that point) we were playing as well as we've played all season," Cloutier said. "We were in control, then I don't know what happened."

What happened was the Lightning once again fell victim to an old bugaboo.

Just 23 seconds after Gratton gave the Lightning a three-goal lead, Steve Thomas scored to make it 3-1.

Then came the awful third period. Clark started things by scoring on a three-on-one break with 11:37 left.

"That's the one that got the ball rolling, and that's the one that hurt," Ludzik said. "We had a defenseman (Ludzik did not name who, but it was Jassen Cullimore) who decided to jump into the play and we got burned.

"I'm never going to get mad at the defensemen for not scoring, but we ask them to keep the other team from scoring. And they did their job back there for all but 11 minutes tonight. I don't know if it's a case where they aren't used to the situation or what, but they didn't handle it very well at that point."

Just a little more than four minutes after Clark scored, the Leafs erased the Lightning's one-time three-goal edge.

Toronto's Mats Sundin then showed why he's one of the world's best players when he made a move around defenseman Paul Mara before firing a wicked backhander past Cloutier to tie the score.

Then Clark deflected a shot past Cloutier for the winner. The Clark-Sundin-Clark trifecta came on three straight shots, though one could hardly blame Cloutier, who was strong despite a light night.

The Lightning held the Leafs, one of the most potent offensive teams in the league, to 24 shots _ the second fewest the Lightning has allowed in the past 20 games. Joseph and Sundin used the same word to describe the victory: "Lucky."

The Lightning used other words.

"Tough," Lecavalier said. "If you look at it, we really played well. "We gave up less than 25 shots. We had the lead. Then something happened. I don't know what. This was a tough one to lose because we played so well."

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