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MAYBE THE BRUINS ARE SIMPLY THE BETTER TEAM

This is how bad it has gotten for Lightning players:

The scoreboard may be the least of their problems this morning.

Certainly, it is a concern that Tampa Bay has lost two in a row and has now fallen behind Boston 2-1 in the Eastern Conference final.

But we have already seen the Lightning come back from a bigger deficit in another series this postseason, so we know it can be done.

The greater concern is the way the Lightning fell to the Bruins 2-0 in Game 3 Thursday night. This one was not about penalties or tempo or momentum or structure.

This was Boston playing the way the Lightning must have feared. It was a team with a smothering defense and a world-class goaltender making the score feel like it was 10-0.

If Game 2 had the feel of a bunch of kids playing on a pond, this was those same kids playing on Prozac. It was stops and starts, it was fumbles and flops. It was butt ugly.

By the second period, Lightning players looked completely out of synch.

They made poor passes and silly decisions. They had scoring opportunities that fizzled before the shot.

If not for 20 strong minutes from Lightning goaltender Dwayne Roloson, the game would have been over by the time the puck was picked up at the end of the second period.

As it was, Tampa Bay barely mounted a challenge in the third period.

There was never the feeling that a comeback was near, never the sense that confidence was high.

And now the Lightning is faced with a quandary.

It lost Game 2 when the tempo was high and the scoring chances were plenty. Now it has lost Game 3 when the pace was slowed and the defenses were in control.

So it is no longer about Lightning players failing to perform within the team's structure. Now you have to consider the possibility that Boston is simply better.

Boston has had the better forecheck. It has been better on faceoffs. And the past two games, Tim Thomas has been better than Roloson.

Other than a furious third period in Game 2, the Lightning has been seriously outplayed in the past two games. And the entire feel of the postseason has changed in 48 hours.

In this series, the Lightning is not getting away with mistakes.

Against this opponent, Tampa Bay is paying for missed chances.

So is it time to panic?

Not yet. No matter how frazzled you are this morning, the world can change again by Game 4 on Saturday afternoon because logic rarely applies in the NHL postseason.

The Lightning may have given up home-ice advantage with this loss, but the team has actually played better on the road (6-2 record) than at home (3-3) in the playoffs.

And if you're worried about momentum, the Lightning went through seven games in the Eastern Conference final and the first five games of the Stanley Cup final without winning back-to-back games in 2004 and still walked away as champion.

Still, that does not mean the Lightning is in good shape.

Tampa Bay is a game down and facing a more complete opponent than a couple of weeks ago when it fell behind Pittsburgh.

The confidence it had after scoring 10 goals in two games against Thomas was completely washed away by a weak effort Thursday night.

And though the defense was better than it had been in Game 2, the Lightning still put itself in a huge hole in the first 69 seconds when two defenders chased the same Bruin and left David Krejci standing alone in front of the net.

"Our focus has to be defense first like it always has been when we have success," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said before the game. "We know if we have success defensively, we've given ourselves a better chance.

"Very good team on the other side, and they can score some goals. So if you give them breakaways and two-on-ones and three-on-twos, it's certainly going to help them gain momentum."

The story lines this postseason have been fairly obvious in Tampa Bay. There is the resurrection of a franchise by Steve Yzerman and Boucher. There is the return of Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

There is the emergence of Sean Bergenheim, the age of Roloson and the growth of Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman.

And if things don't get better real soon, there will be the story of a team that wasn't quite ready to play for the Stanley Cup.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com

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