TAMPA — In a season in which a franchise has rediscovered its direction, the reviews generally have been kind.
It is improved, everyone agrees. It is surprising, most would say. It is scrappy and plucky and gritty and feisty and overachieving and all of the other cautionary praise that others might offer.
After watching the way the Lightning jumped the Capitals on Wednesday night, here's another adjective you can finally say out loud: It is legitimate.
That sounds strange off of the tongue, doesn't it?
The Lightning, once again, is a team of substance. After 250 or so games of skating in random circles, it has returned to the ranks of the genuine. Win a game with this kind of stakes (first place), against that kind of opponent (the Capitals), and it validates a team. It makes it look, well, real. It enables conversations about such things as possibilities and expectations.
It is hard to overstate the significance of the Lightning's 3-0 victory. In the years to come, it might be remembered as the win that turned Pinocchio into a real boy.
Even with the progress the franchise has made this season, it has been clobbered enough times to leave doubts. Seven times in 44 games, the Lightning has given up six goals or more which, in hockey terms, is "fairly alarming." There are still too many nights when the walls cave in, too many games when the shortcomings are exposed and the scoreboard threatens to explode. Couple that with the sudden transformation from the last season's dysfunction, and it's hard to blame those fans who have been cautious to buy in.
Ah, but a night such as this and a victory such as this allow a team to believe in its own turnaround. After all, those were the Capitals, the battling Ovechkins, the team that has battered and bullied the Lightning for years. The Caps have won three straight division titles, and before Wednesday, they had won 12 of the previous 15 games against the Bolts. If there was ever a team the Lightning had to measure up to in order to prove itself, it is the Capitals.
"With every big win we get, we take a step closer to where we want to be," said Lightning defenseman Mattias Ohlund.
More than anything, that is why this victory seemed so large. For three years, most Lightning wins have been microscopic. For the life of me, I can't remember one that mattered. Around here, wins have been invisible for a long time.
To find a bigger one than this, you probably have to go back almost four years, to April 16 of 2007, when the Lightning beat New Jersey in a playoff game. It hasn't won one since.
After this game, it is possible to believe this season might change all of that. After 44 games, the Lightning is in first place in the Southeast. In the Eastern Conference, only the Flyers and Penguins have more points.
So is the Lightning a playoff team? Yes, it should be. If a game such as this is possible, if it can maintain this kind of energy, if no one reminds Dwayne Roloson that he's 41 years old, there is no reason to doubt it.
Next question: Is the Lightning a Cup contender? No, not yet. Tampa Bay still has more to prove. There is more improvement to make.
There was a moment Wednesday night, when the Lightning was swarming the net and the defense had Ovechkin surrounded, that it was possible to wonder what the Capitals thought of the Lightning. Deep down, away from the tape recorders, do the Capitals think of Tampa Bay as an annoyance or as a legitimate threat? Do they think of the Lightning as a team that has had a good half-season but one that will fade as crunch times arrives, or as a team that will last?
Over the past few days, there has been a lot of talk of a rivalry between the Caps and the Lightning. The truth is that it doesn't exist. Over the past few years, the Lightning hasn't been good enough to merit much consideration from Washington. A team only becomes a rival when it is good enough to take away something that matters. It is only a rival when the mention of its name makes your lip curl in disgust.
This game should get the Lightning a stride closer to that. This game should demonstrate, even to the Caps, there is something different, something dangerous, about this Lightning team.
Start with Roloson. In nine days, Roloson has shut out Washington twice. He has now faced 57 shots by the Caps. He has stopped them all. On nights such as this, the net behind him seems to get smaller as the night goes on. Of course, it helps when a player such as Ovechkin can only get off two shots.
Again, there is more work to do. As big as this victory was, they don't give out trophies in January. There will have to be more big moments, more big victories, before anyone should be satisfied with this season.
On the other hand, the Lightning showed what is possible Wednesday. It won a game that looked like a promise.
Now all it has to do is keep it.