Tampa Bay Lightning shows grit in loss to New Jersey Devils

TAMPA — Like the franchise itself, the goaltender was flat on his back.

Mike Smith's face was twisted in agony, and the blood streamed freely down his face. There was pain in there, maybe a bit of confusion and, for the moment, you could not help but wonder if he could rise again.

It was one of those moments when life provides its own metaphors. It was late in the second period of the Lightning's 4-3 shootout loss to New Jersey and there was a three-player pileup in front of the goal. Smith crumpled to the ice, and as he laid prone, it was as if the Tampa Bay franchise was lying beside him, as dormant as it has been for the past two seasons.

And then Smith sat up.

And then he stood.

And then they wiped the blood from him, and he exhaled several times in a row, and then he nodded his head. And then Smith continued.

Turns out, maybe there is something different about this franchise, after all. Maybe there is some blood, and some guts, after all.

Okay, okay. The Lightning lost, again. It had its first lead of the season, and blew it with less than a second left in regulation. The Lightning remains winless, which seems to be all the rage with professional teams based in Tampa. It still hasn't figured out this shootout tiebreaker which, as I understand, is supposed to involve the puck on the inside of the net.

And yet, there was something better, something grittier, something infinitely more interesting about this Lightning team. It played as if the puck belong to it. It played as if, eventually, it would will the puck past Martin Brodeur, who has padded a terrific career by making sure that anyone in a Lightning jersey doesn't. Most impressive of all, the Lightning played as if it was kids who have grown weary of giving up their lunch money to the bullies at school.

Hey, it's a start.

In a home opener, what else can anyone expect?

That said, there is only so much head-patting to be given a team that didn't win. Even when you're grading on the curve, overtime defeat only buys so much credibility.

Hoo boy, does this team need a taste of success. The coaches keep saying the team is better, and the players, and the front office. It is only that darned scoreboard that does not agree.

Right about now, you figure the players could use the psychological boost of thinking they're better before the standings begin to suggest they are not. When a team has lost as often, and as convincingly, as the Lightning has in recent seasons, a bad start can devour confidence and restore doubt.

Looking at the stands, the Lightning could use a few more believers outside the building, too. Forget the announced attendance, which is right up there on the fiction scale with Paul Bunyan and Harry Potter. For an opening night, it was a horrible crowd which, of course, the Lightning has earned by finishing 30th and 29th the last two seasons.

If you look at this game as a coming attractions video, however, and there is a lot to like. Far be it from me to suggest you pay attention, but as the old joke goes, I'd risk one eye.

There are the veterans (Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier). There are the kids (Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman). There are this season's imports (Alex Tanguay and Mattias Ohlund). There are last season's imports (Ryan Malone and Andrej Meszaros).

For instance, how can you not like Stamkos? This time last year, Barry Melrose — the Jeff Jagodzinski of the Lightning — was convinced Stamkos couldn't play. Thursday night, that was Stamkos firing two bullets past Brodeur.

While you're at it, how do you not like Hedman? The kid is 18, the age of a high school senior, and that was him throwing down with David Clarkson of the Devils. Trust me. Hedman is going to be a very big deal around here. On a franchise that hasn't had many defensive players special enough to make opponents notice, they're already noticing Hedman, the kid who looks like a building and skates like a sprinter.

Does this mean the Lightning is magically healed? Of course not. But is the franchise finally headed in the right direction? Yeah, I have to believe it is.

The offense is promising. The defense is edgier. And when someone talks about the fight in the Lightning, they aren't just talking about the owner's box anymore.

Again, it's a start.

Tampa Bay Lightning shows grit in loss to New Jersey Devils 10/09/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 9, 2009 1:37am]

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