TAMPA — Why, hello, Lightning.
And where have you been all season?
It was as simple as a puck in a net and as fast as a heart that is beating again. Just like that, you could recognize the Tampa Bay Lightning all over again. From its energy to its urgency, this was finally the team you cheered a season ago. From its speed to its efficiency, this is the team that had gotten lost along the way.
Good to see you again.
This is who they are, and this is how they play. Somehow, all that had gotten lost with the start of a new season. They had lacked focus, and they had lacked defense, and somehow they had gotten the idea that the penalty box was a new resort to be visited again and again.
And then Vinny Lecavalier wound up and took a shot.
And there they were. Finally.
"That was our team," said Lightning center Steven Stamkos after Thursday's 4-1 win over the Islanders. "There are still some things to work on, but that was as close as to where we were last year as we have been. If we play that game, we're giving ourselves a chance to win 100 percent of the time. We may not win, but we'll give ourselves a chance."
For the Lightning, this might have been one of those turnaround games. Or not. A wayward team's search for rediscovery always starts in the smallest of moments — just the right guy scoring the right goal in the right game. It is only later that you can measure its impact.
So yes, it might turn out it meant very little when Lecavalier snapped a puck into the netting behind Al Montoya in the second period for a 2-0 lead. Perhaps it was not a spark. Perhaps it was not a key player signaling a turnaround. Perhaps it was not a step into the future by a team that has been looking too much to the past. Perhaps it was only a goal.
On the other hand, it felt like more. It felt as if the Lightning had finally returned to being the Lightning.
For a team in desperate search of itself, Lecavalier's goal was something, and something is better than most of the things that have fallen on the Lightning so far this season.
Was this it? Finally? Was this the goal that brings back the urgency? Was this the spark that helps a team recapture its self-image? Was this the moment that finally allows this team to look forward instead of over its shoulder?
And if not, isn't it about time for one?
Give the Lightning this: This was its best game of the year. It finally had energy. It finally had focus. It finally discovered that the penalty box is not, in fact, a resort.
Perhaps it finally realized it is no longer in last season's playoffs.
It can be a troublesome thing when a team has to continue beyond its success. For the Lightning, last season was far too memorable to forget. There were so many moments, so many ovations, the feeling was bound to linger.
"I could see it coming," coach Guy Boucher said at Thursday's morning skate. "Even if we had won another game or two, we were going to have a rocky start. We haven't had the same urgency. It's human nature."
Last year? Last year, urgency came easily. There had been such chaos before, and the players spent the first month skating as if they had been freed from dysfunction. There was a new owner and a new general manager and a new coach, and every shift was a chance to impress somebody. They won their first three, and they were 7-2-1 through their first 10.
This year? You cannot speak the problems in one breath. The defense has been awful, and the scorers haven't been dynamic, and the penalty box has been overcrowded, and the goaltending hasn't been crisp and the starts have been too slow and the finishes have been too weak. And so forth.
Marty St. Louis will tell you bluntly that the big players have to be better. Simple as that.
"I have to be better," he said. "I'm sure 'Stammer' would tell you he has to be better. Vinny, too."
That's true. Average players don't lead a team back to contention. That's why it was a welcome sight when Lecavalier scored, and when Stamkos added another, it looked like a sunset. Add a more efficient defense and a solid game by backup goalie Mathieu Garon and staying away from the penalty box and cycling the puck, and you have a promising night. If the Lightning is to be successful, this is how it must play.
Oh, there are still flaws. Those won't go away with a single victory. But winning is better than losing, and moving forward is better than the alternative.
"How do you eat an elephant?" Boucher said. "A bit at a time. If you look at an elephant, it's too big. And any big problem, you have to break it down.
"It's like we have been patching a leaking hole in the ceiling and suddenly another hole opened down there. So we go down there, and well, the previous one is leaking. We've got to make sure we patch solidly before we start moving onto other leaks."
For a night, the dripping stopped. The backsliding, too. For a night, the Lightning was urgent enough, talented enough, disciplined enough.
Enough nights such as this, enough bites of the elephant, and who knows? The team might find out that the league plans playoffs for this year, too.