They were shooting at Dwayne Roloson again.
It was Wednesday night, sweep night, and the Caps had turned the moment into a skeet shoot, and the pucks seemed to be coming at the Lightning goalie two at a time. Roloson was in full scramble, a man fighting off a wasp attack, lunging and twisting and darn near flying the way he has been doing for most of the postseason.
In that moment, the oddest thought of all struck me.
Egad. In the name of Roloson, I had become a birther.
In that moment, I wanted to see, needed to see, Roloson's birth certificate and the yellowed parchment upon which it was printed. I didn't care where Roli was born. I cared when.
There is no way this guy can be 41 years old, is there? Every save seems to take a week off his age, and every victory seems to take off a year. These days, Roloson is 41 going on 31. If he can win the upcoming Eastern Conference final against the Bruins, his teammates might as well pitch in for acne medication. If he plays any better, he's going to need a mom to stay up late enough for the games.
I know, I know. Every now and then an athlete manages to fight off time and impress us with his achievement. By and large we love old athletes, perhaps because we're all fighting the years. Give me an athlete who first got his birth certificate so he could drive a Studebaker and I'm on my feet. With a little help, of course.
Jack Nicklaus won the Masters at 46, and George Foreman won the heavyweight championship at 45, and Richard Petty won Daytona at 47. Warren Spahn won 23 games at 42, and Dara Torres won three silver Olympic medals at 41, and Nolan Ryan threw a no-hitter at 44.
George Blanda went in at quarterback to help lead his team to a comeback victory over Cincinnati at 44, and Willie Shoemaker won the Kentucky Derby at 54, and Warren Moon threw for 25 touchdowns at 41. There was Gordie Howe and Martina Navratilova and Sam Snead and Pete Rose and Evander Holyfield and Darrell Green and Chris Chelios and on and on.
And here's the thing:
Not one of those athletes played goalie.
Goalie in the NHL is perhaps sports' most demanding and important position. It requires focus and ferocity and the willingness to take a screaming puck between the eyes whenever necessary. It takes agility and endurance and the self-confidence to kick catastrophe aside.
Usually, it takes someone younger than 41.
It is easy to wonder if enough Tampa Bay fans realize they are seeing something rare, something historic with Roloson. Back in 2007, Dominik Hasek won 10 playoff games for the Red Wings at age 42. Back in 1969, Jacques Plante won eight in a row for St. Louis at age 40.
What other playoff goaltender compares?
This is the amazing thing about Roloson: More than his numbers (his .941 save percentage and his 2.01 goals-against average lead the playoffs), more than his winning streak (seven in a row), more than his lifetime won-loss record in the postseason (26-14), it is that Roli is at the age when most goaltenders have become former goaltenders.
And still he keeps playing. Back-to-back games? No problem. Three games in four nights? Who's counting?
"If I didn't know better, I'd think I was watching a goaltender between, say, 28 and 32," said Pat Jablonski, a former Lightning goalie. "He looks like a goaltender who has experience but one who is the age you think of when a goaltender is usually in his prime.
"What did he play, three games in four nights (Games 2-4 against the Caps last week)? It's hard for a 25-year-old to do that."
You remember Jablonski, who played for the Lightning, oh, a million years ago. For the record, he is 43.
"Roli makes me feel like I'm not in that good a shape," Jablonski said. "I just think he's kept himself in amazing shape over the years."
Look, this isn't a placekicker still kicking around the NFL. It isn't a pitcher who throws every fifth day, or a heavyweight boxer lumbering around the ring one day a year, or a driver or a golfer. The achievements by those athletes were amazing enough, but to be in goal while the skaters are streaming toward you like the Charge of the Light Brigade? That's something else.
Has Roloson gotten help? You betcha. Marty St. Louis has played so well that every other player should have "St." in the middle of his name, such as Steven St. Stamkos and Eric St. Brewer and Victor St. Hedman. Sean Bergenheim has played well enough to deserve a nickname (Prime-Time Bergenheim?). Lately, the Lightning has blocked more shots than you see in a Bill Russell highlight reel.
In the playoffs, however, it starts with goaltending. If the Lightning's success is going to continue, it will do so because Roloson is solid — and at times, better than that — throughout the next round. He has to steal a game here or there. He has to make big saves in overtime.
Fortunately for the Lightning, he has proved he is old enough to drive a team.
And the sight of it? That never gets old.