So many parts to this long comeback for the Tampa Bay Lightning

PITTSBURGH

The record books will show the comeback began with a rout in Game 5. And for those who do not know any better, that will probably be enough.

But the truth is more complicated, and the story is far more stirring.

Yes, the Lightning won three consecutive elimination games, including a 1-0 victory in Game 7 against the Penguins on Wednesday night, to complete the greatest postseason comeback in Tampa Bay history.

Yet that does not fully explain the story of a franchise that came back from ridicule. From near poverty. From the back of your mind, all the way to the bottom of your heart.

"We're a resilient bunch, and that's what I'm most proud of," said Marty St. Louis, whose last postseason series victory was the 2004 Stanley Cup final. "Tonight was one of those moments where all the hard work and the desperation finally paid off. And I couldn't be happier for this organization.

"I've said it all year: I'm proud to be on the Lightning again."

So remember Dwayne Roloson, a 41-year-old goaltender who stood so firm in Game 7 that the ice in front of the nets at the Consol Energy Center may be permanently scarred.

And remember Sean Bergenheim, a faceless free agent who signed a bargain-rate contract and ended up scoring the biggest Lightning goal in seven years.

Remember Eric Brewer and Simon Gagne. Remember Dominic Moore and Steve Downie. Remember them all, and remember the sight of their sticks held high.

"I'm happy for all of these people who have worked so hard for so long to get something done with this organization," coach Guy Boucher said. "And all the new people coming in, setting a new way of doing things and a new culture. And right away it paid off.

"And also the fans, obviously. They deserved more games. They deserved more games in the playoffs, and we're coming."

No one outside of Tampa Bay is likely to understand the importance of this victory. That's because no one outside of Tampa Bay could possibly understand the depths of this franchise's frustrations in the past half-dozen seasons.

It wasn't just the losing. No, there are plenty of teams that struggle to win games. This was more widespread than that.

This was the unceremonious destruction of a Stanley Cup roster. This was the gutting of payroll, and multiple For Sale signs in front of the arena.

This was the humiliation of the Barry Melrose days (all 143 of them), and the absurdity of the Oren Koules/Len Barrie freak show.

This was standing in the locker room at the end of the 2010 season, and hearing St. Louis question whether he wanted to remain in Tampa Bay.

Now, one year later, the Lightning is in the Eastern Conference semifinals for just the third time in franchise history.

"It's like night and day," wing Ryan Malone said. "Coach has been preaching this all year. We're not going to roll over easily, no matter what the situation is."

For the record, the Lightning has won all three Game 7s in franchise history. Also for the record, this was the 24th comeback from a 3-1 deficit in NHL history.

"I think we got more calm as the series went on," center Steven Stamkos said. "We weren't afraid, and that had been our plan all along: Don't be afraid to make plays."

You could point out that Pittsburgh was missing its two biggest stars for the entire series. And you will probably run into Penguins fans who will insist the outcome would have been different if either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin had been around.

You know what? They may be right.

You know what else? Boo friggin' hoo.

Lightning fans have lived through enough broken promises and sweaty nightmares over the last half-dozen seasons that they have no reason to apologize for any breaks that finally go their way.

And when it came to crunch time on Wednesday night in the biggest game of the season for either team, it was the Lightning that did not crack.

It was Roloson who outplayed the supposedly superior Marc-Andre Fleury. It was a pair of third-line guys like Moore and Bergenheim who teamed up for the only goal.

It was Nate Thompson throwing his body in front of pucks, and it was Brewer coming back on to the ice for 36 shifts.

In the end, it was St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier reminding everyone else what this organization once stood for, and what it can be again. Neither was an offensive star in any of the three comeback victories, but both played relentless two-way hockey.

When it was over, before Boucher talked to anyone else, the coach walked across the Lightning locker room and shook the hands of Lecavalier and St. Louis.

"They deserved that much," Boucher said. "They've put a lot into this organization. They were here for a lot of good times, and also some hard times.

"This organization owes these guys. They kept fighting. They helped these young guys understand how to act in these playoffs."

So many parts to this long comeback for the Tampa Bay Lightning 04/28/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 28, 2011 1:00pm]

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