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Gary Shelton: Playoff hockey's return to Tampa Bay transforms the Lightning — and its fans

The puck bounces away from Lightning goalie Anders Lindback after the game-winning goal Wednesday in overtime.

DIRK SHADD | Times

The puck bounces away from Lightning goalie Anders Lindback after the game-winning goal Wednesday in overtime.

TAMPA

Overnight, their faces melded into yours.

Overnight, their hunger became your own.

Overnight, you became a member of the Lightning.

The transformation came quickly, like that of the building and the souvenir stands. One moment, these were mere hockey fans. The next, they were playoff hockey fans.

You could see it in the eyes. Just like that, their eyes were like those of Steven Stamkos, sharp and glaring. There was the glint of something hot behind those eyes, a yearning, an ache. It is as if the playoffs had lit the lamp in Stamkos' eyes.

Nearby, in the stands, the eyes of the fans were the same. There was a weight to them. You had seldom seen fans more serious.

After all, these are the games that count. The Lightning's 5-4 overtime loss to the Canadiens in the first game of their Eastern Conference first-round playoff series Wednesday night was the start of a grueling journey on which the beards grow and the scars deepen. These are the moments that matter, the moments a team plays 82 games to earn. Stamkos seemed to be focused on the games to come. His fans, too.

You could see it in the lips. Just like that, the lips of the fans were like those of Anders Lindback, the Lightning goalie with the world on his shoulders. Those lips were tight and drawn, like a predator who would not even show his teeth.

Not far away, the lips of the fans were identical. After all, playoff hockey is serious business. It is not the time for grins. It is the time for a go-to-work expression.

For so long Tampa Bay had waited for a night like this. It had been 1,055 nights, a lot of them spent watching wretched games on wasted nights, since the Lightning had played a postseason game. It was as if every moment had been spent shaking up a soda bottle. If you are thinking of the night in 2004 when the Lightning won the Stanley Cup, well, it had been 3,600 nights since then. It's been an eternity since hockey mattered around here.

Ah, the shame of it was that the result didn't match the coolness of the night.

In a way, that figures. This team has overcome so much all year. Doesn't it figure it would start in a hole against Montreal? Doesn't it figure it would have to figure out some way to keep from getting outshot 44-25?

Still, this is how you tell the monumental difference between the 82nd game of the year (the regular-season finale) and the 83rd (the beginning of the playoffs). In the faces.

It was with that anticipation, that energy, that the Lightning opened a new can of playoffs Wednesday night against Montreal, a city where no other team, where no other sport, matters. Eventually, that weight may work against the Canadiens. That is a lot of pressure to withstand.

The thing is, there is a lot of fun to be had, too.

The faces told you that, too.

Somewhere, you were bound to run into someone with Jon Cooper's stoic expression. Odd. Cooper had said his nerves would probably bubble over in the final eight minutes of the warmups. But there is something to a team taking on the personality of its coach, and so Cooper probably masked most of his emotions so his small, fast team could reflect in his calm.

You know: the Tampa Bay Mini-Coopers.

Elsewhere, there was probably a fan whose expression was a lot like that of general manager Steve Yzerman, never the most expressive of men. But Yzerman played in 196 playoff games. As much as anyone, he probably understood the jangle of excitement and nervousness his players felt.

A lot of people probably looked a lot like Phil Esposito, the team's founder and now a radio broadcaster. Espo's hair is gray. But ah, there is something about the playoffs that makes Espo young again. After all, he played in 130 playoff games in his day.

There was the solid jaw of Victor Hedman. The bushy face of Radko Gudas, the human Chia Pet, who could shave every morning and still have the best beard on the team by 5 p.m. The kid face of Tyler Johnson. And the rest of them.

They are you, these guys. For the next few games — and maybe the next few weeks — they will become part of you. They will make you soar and make you sink, and make you wince and make you scream.

For Tampa Bay, there is a freshness that comes with this team. The old gang, once a bunch of kids, is now scattered across the league to finish up their careers. Vinny. Marty. Brad. Dan. Nik. Torts. For so long, they were the Lightning.

Speaking of faces, can you help but wonder how Marty St. Louis would have looked Wednesday night if he were still with this team? Instead, for reasons none of us may ever fully understand, he is an outsider now.

In his place, there was these magnificent kids. The Incredi-Bolts.

Just imagine. Take the top 12 rookies in AAA and promote them to the Rays … and you finish last. Take 12 draft picks and give them significant time with the Bucs … and you lose 13 games. But with the Lightning, it works.

Maybe that's why no one saw this success coming. We weren't expecting help from below. Over the history of the Lightning, the talented youngsters entered the lineup immediately after the draft, and they stayed there.

Who knows? Maybe we were all snobs. We treated the AHL playoffs as if they were a minor-league exhibition that didn't matter. And, no, they aren't the NHL playoffs. But they aren't bad, either. And, yes, a team can find a player from there.

And off we go.

This promises to be a nice series. Who knows? Perhaps it will turn into a nice month.

Perhaps this will be the team to rekindle Tampa Bay's love of playoff hockey. Maybe it will give us enough moments to savor. Maybe it will give us reason to cheer.

Now that hockey matters again, what else would you expect?

Gary Shelton: Playoff hockey's return to Tampa Bay transforms the Lightning — and its fans 04/16/14 [Last modified: Thursday, April 17, 2014 6:34am]

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