WASHINGTON — He has been a prodigy. A skinny 18-year-old with the skills of a maestro.
He has been a disappointment. A petulant 21-year-old with a lack of perspective.
He has been a star. A smiling 26-year-old on top of the hockey world.
And now? What would you call Vinny Lecavalier today?
How about Tampa Bay's savior.
He is 31 and no longer the goal scorer he was as a younger man. His body has been dinged and dented and, at times, his ego has been forced to take a holiday.
Steven Stamkos has become the face of the Lightning, and Marty St. Louis continues to rack up points at a rare pace.
Lecavalier? He is the older gent. A 50-goal scorer, who has become the most expensive defensive forward in the game. He is a captain, a leader, an example to follow.
And in overtime of Game 2 against the Capitals on Sunday night, he was a star once more. Lecavalier gave the Lightning a two-game sweep in the Verizon Center with an artful breakaway goal six minutes into the first overtime.
The Capitals were in the middle of a line change when Randy Jones chased down a puck in the Lightning defensive zone and sent a long bounce pass to Teddy Purcell, who found Lecavalier coming off the bench and streaking toward the net.
Racing full speed at Michal Neuvirth, Lecavalier stopped the puck then lifted it gently over the goaltender's glove for the winner.
"Honestly, that move he pulled for that goal? That was just sick," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "I had to look at the replay afterward. I thought he just batted it, and it went in. No. He's going full speed, all the momentum in the world, he's barely making it there, and he stops it and pulls it back.
"That's just crazy. Honestly, it takes a special person to be able to do that."
What's even more crazy is sometimes we forget what Lecavalier is capable of doing. It has been quite some time since he was Tampa Bay's leading scorer. It has been even longer since he was on top of the NHL's scoring list.
In the years after winning the Stanley Cup, Lecavalier was at the peak of his goal-scoring ability. He averaged 42 goals in a three-year span and was becoming a staple in the NHL All-Star Game.
But as the franchise's fortunes took a tumble, Lecavalier's numbers fell, too. He battled a shoulder injury. He heard annual trade rumors. He has gone three consecutive seasons with fewer than 30 goals.
"The organization and the coach support the way he is playing and appreciate the way he's playing, and I think he understands that," general manager Steve Yzerman said. "Our team captain has bought into this, and all of the other guys have bought in. You don't have to lead the league in scoring to be the best player."
Even as Yzerman and Boucher insist Lecavalier is more valuable than ever because he has become a more complete player, it is never easy for a hockey player who was used to finding the back of the net more regularly to change his expectations.
"They've been tough years, I'm not going to lie," Lecavalier said in a hallway outside of the locker room Sunday night. "The last three years there have been a lot of trade rumors, a lot of uncertainty with the team, I wasn't sure how everything was going to turn out.
"But last summer, I sat down with Steve Yzerman and he told me, 'You're going to be part of this team, and I want you to help me out with your leadership.' That really helped. All I've ever wanted was this team to do well."
The overtime goal was not Lecavalier's first moment of the night. He teamed up with St. Louis to put the Lightning ahead in the first period with a wicked one-timer to the left of the net on a power play.
And the guy who had 25 goals in the regular season now has four in the first nine games of the postseason. And the guy who helped sink Washington in 2003 for Tampa Bay's first-ever playoff series victory is back again in 2011.
"When you're 23, and you have a Dave Andreychuk and a Tim Taylor and a Darryl Sydor, and you've got guys who have been through it, you look at them to see how you're supposed to act," Lecavalier said. "Now, I'm that old guy.
"I don't feel old in my head, but I have been through it, so I try to lead as best I can."
Prodigy. Hard head. Star.
Lecavalier has done it all.
And what does that make him today?
A great hockey player.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com.