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In NHL playoffs, conference finals are when the fun really begins

The first round is a hoot. The second round is a blast. • But the third round? • In the NHL playoffs, that's where the fun really begins. • This is where the elite teams meet, in the thin air of the conference finals. This is where shaggy men with scarred faces and broken teeth make a town fall in love with them. This is where they gather to fight for banners, trophies and memories. • "The further you go,'' Marty St. Louis says, "the more fun you have.'' • "It gets bigger and bigger,'' Vinny Lecavalier says, "and the emotions get higher and higher.'' • "Better and better,'' Simon Gagne says. • Lo and behold, the Lightning has reached the back half of the playoffs. Ninety-three games into its season, it is in the final four. From here, the stakes grow, and the drama mounts, and the intensity is turned up as if Lord Stanley has his fingers on the volume control knob. • And really, isn't it delicious? • And for that matter, familiar?

Nothing against the first round, which was a nice little slice of validation for the Lightning, a team that hadn't managed to make it in four years.

That's the thing about the first round, however. It feels big only when the results have been small. The longer a team has been away from the playoffs, and the smaller the expectations of its fans, the bigger the accomplishment seems.

For a new owner and a new general manager and a new coach, it suggests better days are ahead. It means the sorrowful days are over. It means you are no longer one of the teams that didn't make it to the payoffs.

All that said, no one has ever hung a banner for a first-round series, not even when a team overcomes a 3-1 deficit against Pittsburgh to win it.

And no one is trying to make light of the second round. After all, it had been seven years since Tampa Bay had stayed alive that long.

Survive a round in the postseason and it means you belong. It means all the critics were wrong about you. It means you had substance all along. It means the old players are not too old and the young players are not too young and, by golly, there is still fight in the franchise.

Still, no one gets a trophy for a second-round series win, not even when the team swept aside is Washington, the No. 1 seed in the conference.

Understand, then, as the passion grows around you. From here on, the stakes are huge. This is the portion of the playoffs the Lightning players — and fans — will remember, for that may happen and for all that should.

"People remember the conference finals and the Cup more that the first two rounds,'' St. Louis says. "You're closer to your goal, and everything is magnified.''

Think about the Lightning's 2004 Stanley Cup run. If you're like most of us, the most precious memories came as the journey continued. Oh, you probably remember how good St. Louis was in the first round, and you may remember Lecavalier and his between-the-legs shot in the sweep over his hometown Canadiens.

Ah, but it was the conference final against Philadelphia when the memories really jump-started.

Even now, you remember Brad Richards in overtime. You remember Keith Primeau being stopped cold on a breakaway by Nikolai Khabibulin. You remember then-coach John Tortorella telling then-Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock to "shut your yap.''

Me? I remember a video the Lightning played that started with highlights of the racehorse Smarty Jones, the '04 Kentucky Derby winner who was from the Philadelphia area. Quickly, the video shifted to a scene from Blazing Saddles, where Mongo (Alex Karras) punched a horse. Grand stuff, wasn't it?

Then came the Cup final against Calgary, and St. Louis ramming home the game winner in Game 6, and Ruslan Fedotenko scoring two goals in Game 7 while playing with a swollen face, and Dave Andreychuk hoisting the Cup, and Ray Bourque's inspirational call to Tim Taylor.

Me? I also remember Pavel Kubina after Game 7 dashing forward and sliding headfirst on the ice in celebration, time after time, at the St. Pete Times Forum. Most of his teammates had gone into the locker room, but Kubina, 10 again, did not want to leave the ice.

Here's something else I remember: I remember the crowds, and the way the passion surged through the area. I remember an area falling in love with a team.

Now you feel it happening again. Once again the Lightning enters Round 3 on a seven-game winning streak. Once again it is eight victories away from the Cup. Once again the unique grind that is the playoffs has reached the rev-it-up stage.

Even Gagne, a relative newcomer to the area, has noticed the difference. Suddenly, Lightning yard signs are filling his neighborhood. It wasn't that way during the season.

There are moments to come. Good moments. Bad ones. There will be sweat and blood and hope and dreams and desperation and bad calls.

Along the way, there will be a few grins, too.

Enjoy it, won't you?

In NHL playoffs, conference finals are when the fun really begins 05/13/11 [Last modified: Friday, May 13, 2011 10:45pm]

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