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It was a Tampa Bay miracle on ice

To set the stage, there couldn't have been more theatrics if it'd been Madonna about to marry Michael Jackson. Long before the Lightning babes went out to "Kick Ice," a hockey barn called Expo Hall exploded to life with thumping music, famous names in the stands, indoor fireworks, laser lights, stomping feet, great puffs of smoke, standing ovations and a chorus line of figure skaters.

Then came the real show.

Chris Kontos instant Lightning legend.

Tampa Bay, a sunshiny metropolis that itches to be "major league," and awaits Giants baseball, took giant steps on ice skates Wednesday night. A one-for-the-scrapbooks National Hockey League inaugural would turn the Chicago Blackhawks pale with amazement.

Kontos! Kontos! Kontos! Kontos!

Remember 1976, when Tampa Bay's pro football Bucs were born? You expected them to be really bad, but they were far worse. Johnny Carson joked often about the Bucs. They became America's laughingstocks. It would be two seasons and 27 games before the Bucs won No. 1.

Lightning even the name is quicker.

Tampa Bay patrons came hopefully bounding into Expo Hall, but surely nobody was expecting anything mightier than a tough, hustling Lightning team that would leave a few welts on the mighty Blackhawks, and maybe even keep the score close for a period or two.

But a miracle in diapers?

Spectators had chanted "hoc-key! hoc-key!" when the pregame extravaganza lasted too long. They hungered for action of another sort. Lightning players immediately began to deliver beyond the most elaborate, most unrealistic Tampa Bay opening-night fantasies.

Especially a babe named Kontos.

Faceoff finally came at 8:23 in the Florida evening, and by 8:31 the Lightning crowd was roaring over its first NHL fight, a one-rounder between Chicago's Mike Hudson and Tampa Bay's Anatoli Semenov. It got loud but the decibels wouldn't compare to what came at 8:34, when Kontos scored the first Tampa Bay goal ever.

Babes 1, Old Pros 0.

Recognizable Tampa Bay sporting figures were screaming approval in the vibrating Expo Hall pews. Among them Sam Wyche, Doc Gooden, Wade Boggs, Vince Naimoli, George Steinbrenner, Gary Sheffield, Jennifer Capriati, Bobby Thigpen, Dave Magadan and Fred McGriff.

It wouldn't be Wednesday night's last hurrah. Not by a Lightning long shot. Tampa Bay didn't "keep it close." No, the Lightning astonishingly opened it up, hammering the Campbell Conference champions for leads of 2-1 (wow!) and 4-1 (nah?) and 7-2 (will this make the network news?).

Kontos scored 1, 2, 3, 4 times against shellshocked Chicago goaltender Ed Belfour. If three goals is a "hat trick," four must be a fur hat trick.

Tampa Bay wins 7-3. Remarkable!

In the supercharged Expo Hall audience, a few faces weren't smiling. There were notable specks of red; people who came wearing Blackhawks colors. Scott Krajak was especially loud, even when his favorites fell farther and farther behind the stunning Tampa Bay babes.

"I'm a certified hockey crazy," said the 34-year-old auto mechanic. "I grew up at Chicago Stadium, screaming my guts out for the Blackhawks. We moved to Tampa in 1983, and I missed the NHL. It was like a member of my family had died. But now it's in Florida, and my heart really beats for the Lightning, except when they play Chicago."

We're going to find a lot of that at Expo Hall. It's the "Transplant Factor." When the Bruins are in town, expect at least 999 old Bostonians. When it's Montreal, you won't need Superman's ears to hear French Canadian spoken in every section. Old Detroiters await their Red Wings, old Philadelphians are checking the Lightning schedule for their Flyers.

You get the idea.

Probably, all around the NHL, established franchises have been counting on working vacations to Florida, where they catch a few sun rays in the afternoon and then lollygag past the expansionist Lightning in the evening.

Maybe the Blackhawks thought that, but Wednesday afternoon was rainy, and then Wednesday night was an unpredicted hailstorm of Tampa Bay goals. This morning, the Lightning babes are 1-0.

Bask while it lasts.