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Gary Shelton: It's getting easier to see this Tampa Bay Lightning team going further

Teddy Purcell (16) points to the puck after beating Bruins Tim Thomas (30) and Tomas Kaberle (12) as Simon Gagne moves in.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Teddy Purcell (16) points to the puck after beating Bruins Tim Thomas (30) and Tomas Kaberle (12) as Simon Gagne moves in.

BOSTON

It is too soon for the question, of course. The series has just begun. The players have barely begun to open wounds on each other. There is a long way to go.

Still, a game such as this raises the question:

Why can't this Lightning team win it all?

The Lightning won another game Saturday night. In the arena of its greatest torment, against a goaltender who leads the league in induced nightmares, in a series it was never supposed to reach, the Tampa Bay Lightning captured the opening game of the NHL Eastern Conference final.

Tampa Bay 5, Boston 2.

At this point, there are seven games left to win, who doesn't think this team can win them? At this point, the better question is this: Who is going to stop them? Anyone?

This is no longer a nice little team on a nice little run after a nice little season. It is no longer a plucky bunch of overachievers making up for the years away from the playoffs. This is a contender.

With every series, with every game, with every shift, this team looks more and more legitimate. The Lightning is better now than it was when it swept Washington, and was better against Washington than it was when it came from behind to beat Pittsburgh, and it was better against Pittsburgh than it was at any point in the regular season.

This team gets better every day, and you cannot help but wonder how much better it can become over the next month. With eight straight wins, the Lightning is a powerhouse, a rolling ball of butcher knives, and it has become impossible to tell the great players from the grinders. Suddenly, every stick in the rack is lethal.

This was supposed to be a difficult game for the Lightning players, remember? Their layoff since beating the Capitals had been so long that by Wednesday, Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher was aching for his team to play again. Then there was the Bruins' home ice to contend with: Tampa Bay had won only four of 35 games in Boston in its history. There was defenseman Zdeno Chara, the skating building.

Most of all, there was Tim Thomas, a goaltender who has been so excellent you wanted to break out a tape measure to see if he was the exact dimensions of the goal mouth.

And, after a three-goal, 85-second outburst in the first period, none of it mattered. Three quick shots, three goals before you could sneeze, and the Lightning had drawn first blood in the series.

For the first period, it seemed the Lightning was everywhere. A puck kicks off the skate of Dennis Seidenberg, and Sean Bergenheim, of course, is there to pop it back into the net. Brett Clark sweeps down the left side, then somehow coaxes a slow putt that Marlo could have stopped. Then Tomas Kaberle fumbles the puck away to Teddy Purcell in front of the net, and Purcell nudges it in.

This is what this Lightning team does. Make a mistake, and someone — anyone — is on the puck like found money.

For this team, winning isn't a surprise anymore. Frankly, neither is Bergenheim's participation in it. As soon as the Rays' Sam Fuld is finished with all of those Chuck Norris lines, he should forward them over to Bergenheim. Maybe Superman sleeps in his pajamas these days.

At this portion of the season, the tempting thing, the trite thing, is to begin to talk about destiny. Fans love to talk about destiny. But that isn't it. You can talk about magic, but that isn't it, either.

What you are seeing is a team that suddenly believes in itself. The confidence of this team, the control, seems to grow, too. There are times it seems outnumbered and times the other team seems intent on leaving Dwayne Roloson's mask as dimpled as a golf ball. But this team seems to ride through the trouble most of the time. At the start of these playoffs, the Lightning lacked the mental fierceness these games require. It doesn't lack that anymore.

Be honest: When the playoffs began, did you know anyone who thought this team was capable of getting so deep? Put it this way: If someone would have suggested the Lightning would make it to the second round, would that have sounded like enough?

Not anymore, it wouldn't. Not for the Lightning. Not for its fans.

So when did you start to believe? Game 6 against the Penguins? Game 7? Game 2 against Washington? Saturday night?

Again, it bears repeating. This was only one game, and Thomas will be better, and the Bruins will be tougher. As for the Lightning, you can expect to hear the phrase "a long way to go" about a billion times between now and Tuesday night's game.

If Boucher has taught his players nothing else, he has taught them the postseason is a continuing streak of one-game series in which the last shift no longer matters. The matchups aren't anything to worry about, or the odds, or the expectations.

Just the next shift.

Personally, I expect them to win that one, too.

Gary Shelton: It's getting easier to see this Tampa Bay Lightning team going further 05/14/11 [Last modified: Sunday, May 15, 2011 5:28pm]
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