Here comes the litmus test

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 1:04 PM ET


 The feeling-out rounds are complete.

 You know, the ones early in the boxing match when the combatants spend much of their time trying to find their opponents' weakness and checking to see just how strong, tough and skilled their opponent really is.

 Now, with those rounds scored, we're into the good stuff.

 The first few games of the Stanley Cup final are in the books and there's no doubt each team has a more legitimate read on the other.

 Remember, these clubs faced each other a grand total of once this season -- Game 48 in late January.

 It was hardly a true test of each other's ability to succeed in the playoffs.

 Therefore, the early portion of this series was that opportunity to discover the best the other's got.

 With the way Saturday's Game 3 panned out, there's no doubt the Lightning has a firm grasp of what to expect from the Flames.

 There are no more questions about just how fast Calgary's speedsters can go, or how relentless the Flames' forecheck really is.

 Skilled Tampa forwards Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier, Cory Stillman and Fredrik Modin are now all too familiar with the rugged defenders and what they'll do to hold their ground in front of the net.

 Certainly, by now, they've figured out all they can about goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff.

 Now's the time for the Lightning to respond.

 Tonight's pivotal Game 4 in the best-of-seven series is all about what Tampa Bay can and will do to combat the Flames.

 This much we do know -- the Flames can't be much better than they were in Saturday's 3-0 victory at the Saddledome.

 There is room for improvement but the bar won't be raised that much higher.

 Whether the Lightning has another gear remains to be seen.

 Certainly, Tampa's 4-1 victory in Game 2 gave everyone a good indication of what the Lightning can do.

 The Bolts held on to a 1-0 lead until a trio of third-period goals blew the game open.

 It was the kind of performance the Eastern Conference champs have provided throughout the season.

 It was a great opportunity to gauge how exciting and effective their top-six forwards can be when allowed the time and space to run and gun.

 However -- and everybody inside the Tampa dressing room knows this -- don't count on seeing another sub-par effort from the Flames again.

 Calgary's Game 2 stinker surely won't be repeated.

 What to expect the rest of the way from Calgary is more of the same from Saturday night.

 Bet your bottom dollar the Flames will do all they can to dictate the play with the punishing checks that turned the tide the other night.

 With their tenacious forecheck.

 With their will.

 Tampa Bay's chance to claim the Stanley Cup is dependent on its ability to create something through all that.

 It's crucial for St. Louis -- the target of a steady stream of attention Saturday -- as well as Richards and Stillman to be the exciting snipers they are, knowing the Flames are ready to exact a pound of their flesh.

 It's crucial for Lecavalier, Modin and Dave Andreychuk to use their size and skill to bull their way to goals, if need be.

 It's crucial for the defence corps to be part of the attack without surrendering too many odd-man rushes the other way.

 It's crucial for them all to take advantage of their greater skill level.

 Rest assured, the Flames are poised to deliver a couple of hard body blows tonight, with a potential knockout blow in the works as soon as possible in the aftermath.

 Tonight we see if the Lightning have what it takes to answer the bell.


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