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Tampa Bay Lightning should celebrate (a little)

TAMPA

The champagne can wait. This was a night for clear heads.

A night to remember how far a franchise had come and how agonizing the journey had been. A night to recall the rush of success and the cost it requires.

For the first time since 2007, the Lightning can be called a playoff team, and that is no small accomplishment considering the torture this franchise has endured.

We have gone from owners who had no passion to owners who had no clue. From a revolving door of coaches to a handful of empty checkbooks.

So, yes, when the players reached the locker room after a 2-1 victory against the Penguins on Thursday night, it was more liberation than celebration.

Sort of a release from years of frozen bondage.

"For us, it's been a long time coming, guys that have been here a few years," said Marty St. Louis, who scored his 30th goal of the season. "It's a chance at the big prize again. We haven't played for that in a long time.

"There's been a lot of turmoil the last 2-3 years. Now to finally get back, it's obviously very rewarding with everything that's been done here the last year on and off the ice. I think we should be proud of that."

This Lightning team has made it permissible to forget the miscalculations (Marc Denis), the silliness (Barry Melrose) and the insanity (Tweedle-Barrie and Tweedle-Koules).

It has made it okay to think of possibilities instead of limitations.

It is the steady hand of owner Jeff Vinik and the credibility of general manager Steve Yzerman. It is the honesty of coach Guy Boucher and the devotion of two dozen players.

This team is not yet a Stanley Cup contender, but it is light-years ahead of where it was a year ago.

"It's a long-term plan," Vinik said after the game. "We're very excited to be in the playoffs this year. It's great.

"But we put this team in place to fight (for the playoffs) for many years to come. So hopefully, this is one step on the way to being the world-class team we've talked about."

Of the East teams that have already clinched playoff spots, none have come as far as Tampa Bay.

Philadelphia? Washington? Boston? Pittsburgh? They all made the playoffs last season.

The Lightning has gone from an 80-point season to a 95-point season with five games remaining. Not only did the victory clinch a playoff spot, it guaranteed Tampa Bay's second-best regular season in franchise history, trailing only the Stanley Cup team of 2003-04.

"We have a good group of people that are on the same page," Boucher said. "To me, that's the biggest achievement we've had this year. To have this entire group — and it's a big group — on the same page. It's very rare you get that, wherever you are.

"I find that terrific for a first year. That's what I find special."

Since the franchise's last postseason game, the Lightning has changed ownership twice, fired three coaches and vanquished every single player not named Lecavalier or St. Louis.

Back then, Victor Hedman was 16 and playing in a junior league in Sweden. Steven Stamkos was one year removed from a AAA midget team. And Boucher was making his debut as a head coach in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

"The last two years, especially, were tough," captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "Everybody was going in a different direction. When that happens, you wonder when it's going to come back.

"This year, when Mr. Vinik bought the team and hired Steve and hired Guy, I think that's where I started to believe."

By now, you may have forgotten what playoff hockey feels like in the NHL.

If so, the Lightning and Penguins offered a pretty close approximation on Thursday night. The game was tight, the hits were punishing and the energy was high.

And considering these teams will probably meet in the first round in two weeks or so, the Lightning should be encouraged by winning Thursday night and evening the season series at two victories apiece. But it should also be realistic.

The Penguins were without Sidney Crosby. They were without Evgeni Malkin. They were without as much motivation as the Lightning. And even so, Pittsburgh outplayed Tampa Bay for long periods of time.

Still, this was not a night for being overly critical or unduly enthusiastic. It was a night to recognize what six months of devotion can accomplish. Which is why Vinik came down to shake some hands and Boucher gave his players a few minutes to appreciate what they had accomplished.

The playoffs are back in Tampa Bay, and now we know just how precious that feeling can be.

"It matters. It matters a lot," Boucher said.

"It means that it's not just a dream now. It's not just something you were hoping for."

Tampa Bay Lightning should celebrate (a little) 04/01/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 1, 2011 1:35am]

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