TAMPA — In the snapshot of the moment, the Lightning looked dangerous again. Its stars were aligned and, once more, all things seemed possible.
Vinny Lecavalier was on the right wing, the puck dancing on his stick. He half-turned and passed it to Marty St. Louis on the point, who quickly slid it to Steven Stamkos on the left wing, who hit a shot so hard and so fast that it is a wonder it did not rip through the net and shatter the glass behind it.
And it looked … like hockey.
The players talk in the locker room, and you hear the same repeated phrases about power plays and penalty kills and protecting the home ice. You hear fans wonder if the goaltending will hold up, and when Simon Gagne might return, and how good the standings look these days. You hear a coach mention the playoffs, and no one in the room laughs.
And it sounds … like hockey.
Fourteen games in, and the Lightning is back to the business of hockey. Fourteen games in, and the calliope music has stopped, and the silliness has ended, and the fun has returned. It looks like hockey, it smells like hockey, and it feels like hockey.
If nothing else, the quick start of the new-and-improved Lightning has earned it a fresh canvas. The cowboys are gone and the circus has left. The focus of a hockey franchise is hockey, as it should have been all along.
For two years, it was not. You hate to talk about it again, because this team is skating as hard away from bad memories as it can. Still, the season is still new enough that it is hard not to compare all the good things you see with the all the bad you have endured. Even as the Lightning jumped all over Toronto in Tuesday night's 4-0 victory, it was impossible not to think of how this team has pulled out of the quicksand.
This had become a team determined to earn one more set of questions and one more round of headlines. The Lightning was chaos in a blender, and as hard as they tried, even the players could not escape it. It was like trying to perform heart surgery in the middle of a road construction crew; it didn't matter how hard anyone tried to focus, eventually, the jackhammers were going to get on someone's nerves.
Someone was going to fire a coach, or an assistant coach. Stars were dismissed for little return. Players came and left before the milk expired. There were constant rumors about who might be next. The owner who didn't have any money was going to try to take the team from the owner who did. And every day, the memory of how special this team once was seemed to fade a little bit more.
Now, it appears, the Lightning has come through the other side.
And, once again, players are smiling.
"It's a different atmosphere," Lecavalier said Tuesday morning. "When you walk into the room, everyone is happy to come in here and learn from our coaches. With winning organizations, stability is probably the most important thing. It's definitely a lot more fun now."
Lecavalier should know. There for a while, it seemed the owners were determined to drive him insane. And while they were at it, they were going to drain most of the enthusiasm from the rest of the locker room.
"It's night and day," St. Louis said. "We don't have all the negative articles written about us anymore. We don't go into every city and have to answer questions about what the organization is doing. That became a little old.
"It feels fresh. A much-needed freshness, I guess."
Said Stamkos: "We definitely don't have as many distractions. And we're winning. When you're losing, there isn't much else to talk about."
In other words, the Lightning might have needed a fast start to this season as much as any team in the NHL. Still, it is impressive just how fast the new guys in charge have washed the cartoon off this team, isn't it?
Think about it. There is a new owner, and a new general manager, and a new coach. There is a new system, and new assistants, and 10 new players. There is, coach Guy Boucher points out, a new chemistry and a new culture.
And still, the Lightning has entered this season as if it had a man advantage. It is now 8-4-2, fourth in the Eastern Conference. Stamkos, who had two more goals, looks like he's one of the top three players in the league.
Will it last? That's always the question to any quick start, isn't it? Can Dan Ellis stay this strong in goal? Will the defense hold up? Is this a good start or a good team? And on and on.
The thing is, those are hockey questions. Around here, such chatter has never sounded so good.
This time, it is refreshing enough to let the season answer them.