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Just consider the possibilities for red-hot Tampa Bay Lightning

Dwayne Roloson, who made 29 saves, blocks a shot in the first period, when the Capitals outshot the Lightning 13-8.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Dwayne Roloson, who made 29 saves, blocks a shot in the first period, when the Capitals outshot the Lightning 13-8.

TAMPA — Dwayne Roloson slides across the net to block a point-blank shot with the toe of his right skate, and you start to wonder.

Marty St. Louis fights to control the puck in the corner before sending a precision pass to Vinny Lecavalier in front of the net, and you begin to ponder.

A group of tired, happy hockey players stand at mid ice with their sticks aloft in victory, and you finally allow yourself to imagine the unimaginable.

Why not Tampa Bay?

And why not now?

It has been so long since the Lightning had a starring role in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the tendency was to approach this postseason with raised eyebrows and lowered expectations.

But after watching them outhustle, outsmart and outscore the No. 1 seeded Capitals for a third consecutive game, perhaps it is time to reassess possible destinations for this somewhat rag tag group of Lightning players.

"There's never a better time than now," said St. Louis, who now has five goals and six assists this postseason. "The higher you shoot, the better result you're going to get. You can't be content. You have to set your goals high.

"That's the way a lot of guys think in here."

Now it's not like anyone in the Lightning locker room is looking beyond Game 4 tonight. In fact, they are almost fanatical in their insistence that this series is not over, despite Tuesday night's 4-3 victory and Tampa Bay's 3-0 series lead.

But it would probably be fair to say there is a new confidence in the locker room. A sense that something special has been discovered, and it has led to a new outlook on the future.

For, make no mistake, this is a new level. A completely different gear. The Lightning had one six-game winning streak during the regular season, and that one involved three shootouts and opponents from places such as Columbus, Atlanta, Florida and Toronto.

This, on the other hand, is a six-game winning streak in April and May. Against two higher-seeded teams, including the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference. With four of those games on the road.

"I just sense that all the boys are in the boat right now. There's nobody swimming on his own anymore. Everybody is inside, and we're all rowing in the same direction," St. Louis said. "That's what it feels like.

"When you do that, you get places. And we've done that. But every day we have to get back into that boat again and row together. You miss one guy, and that boat might not go straight."

If you're still doubtful, think about what it takes to win in the postseason.

Hot goaltender? Check. Proven scorers? Check. Excellent special teams? Check. Role players emerging from the shadows? Check.

This is Roloson playing Nikolai Khabibulin. It is Sean Bergenheim playing Ruslan Fedotenko. This is St. Louis and Lecavalier playing, well, St. Louis and Lecavalier.

"We're learning, and we're bonding," Bergenheim said. "It's a pretty obvious thing that happens in the playoffs especially when guys haven't played much playoff hockey before."

What's most remarkable is how this team has suddenly learned to play when the air is thin and the nerves are twitching. Remember how this team struggled early on in the third period of the Pittsburgh series? The Lightning gave up the winning score in the third period or overtime in three of the first four games of that series.

Those are the type of losses that are supposed to devastate a young team. The kind of losses that are called learning experiences for next season.

Yet this Lightning team is learning on some kind of super curve. During this six-game winning streak, Tampa Bay has scored the winner in the third period or overtime in three games. In two others, the Lightning has held tight to a one-goal lead.

"They are uncanny when they want to get a goal," Capitals wing Mike Knuble said. "It's like they just snap their fingers or hit a button. They just dial it up. You can see it. It's like they flip a switch.

"It leaves you flabbergasted."

You can say the Lightning has been incredibly fortunate, and who could argue that?

Go back to the Pittsburgh series and you can point out Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were on the shelf.

In this series, the Capitals have had two goals disallowed, and the Lightning has had three goals scored on ricochets off skates.

But you can also say the Lightning has been the more composed team. You can say the Lightning has been the better-coached team. You can say, after three consecutive victories, the Lightning has gotten exactly what it earned.

"We have a lot of character in this room. We all believe in each other. We know we can come back from anything," forward Nate Thompson said.

"But listen, guys, this is still far from over."

True, but that doesn't mean you can't wonder about what's still ahead.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Just consider the possibilities for red-hot Tampa Bay Lightning 05/04/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 4, 2011 1:07pm]

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