The Tampa Bay Lightning hasn't made a solid run for the playoffs, but the team hasn't gone away, either.
It keeps hanging around in the Eastern Conference race thanks to victories over some of the better teams in the league.
Tuesday night the Lightning defeated the Washington Capitals for the first time, matching the Caps' speed and physical play for a 4-3 victory.
Tampa Bay improved to 24-33-8 for 56 points _ six points behind Philadelphia and Florida, which are tied for the eighth and final playoff spot. Tampa Bay has played 65 games, one more than Philadelphia and three more than Florida. The New York Islanders also are a team the Lightning has to pass, and they have 60 points but have played three games fewer.
"I think making the playoffs is not unrealistic," Lightning center Denis Savard said. "Everyone in this room is aware of what's at stake. The effort has definitely been there."
Tampa Bay's 24 wins include victories over all four division leaders. Still, Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld said his team underestimated the Lightning.
"We didn't respect our opponent," Schoenfeld said. "In the National Hockey League, if you do that, you're asking for a loss. We gave an effort, but it was a contrived effort."
The Lightning certainly respected Washington, which came in 3-0-2 overall against Tampa Bay. The Caps posted the NHL's best record in February _ 9-2-2 _ and had a three-game winning streak and five-game home unbeaten streak.
They had been playing inspired hockey since Jim Schoenfeld took over the coaching reins from Terry Murray Jan. 27.
The last time the Lightning was at USAir Arena, Feb. 5, it watched as Petr Bondra scored five goals. This time, the only puck Bondra put into the net was ruled "no goal" because the play had been whistled dead.
The Lightning allowed 40 shots but only Mike Ridley, Brad May and Randy Burridge got the puck past Daren Puppa, who posted his 19th victory.
"I think it was an unflattering 40 shots," Lightning wing Rob DiMaio said. "Daren played a solid game, as always, but they didn't have that many great scoring chances."
With leading scorer Petr Klima sidelined with a separated shoulder, Savard, Danton Cole, Chris Gratton and Gerard Gallant picked up the offensive slack.
"We needed that," said coach Terry Crisp, whose team had totaled three goals in the past two games. "With Klima out, four goals is pretty goal. It's pretty good sledding."
Savard and Gallant have played on the same line the past two games. Their major role has been to keep the opponents off the scoreboard, but they have provided unexpected offensive spark. Gallant, who had one goal in his first 38 games with Tampa Bay, has two goals in his past two games.
"He's surprising sometimes," Savard said of Gallant. "He's such a popular player with his teammates. We all hope it keeps going for him."
Cole has been the team's most consistent player other than Puppa. He added to his career-best marks with his 16th goal and 34th and 35th points.
And Gratton showed more reasons why he was selected third overall in June's entry draft. He scored while being dragged down by Washington's Todd Krygier, giving the Lightning a 3-2 lead in the second period.
Crisp also cited the play of Marc Bureau and DiMaio, both of whom played solid defense to keep the Caps from maintaining the puck low in the Lightning zone.
"They were unbelievable," Crisp said. "Bureau won three key faceoffs late in the game against Dale Hunter, and DiMaio was just a foot soldier out there. They hit 'em, shot 'em, and killed 'em. He should get a Purple Heart, because everything else on him is purple."
Tampa Bay built a quick 2-0 lead on goals by Savard and Cole.
Savard stole Kevin Hatcher's pass and passed to Gallant, who maneuvered around John Slaney and passed back to Savard. He finished the play with a shot that hit Don Beaupre in the pads and dribbled over the goal line. Savard's 10th goal of the season gave him 1,222 career points, putting him in 17th place on the NHL's all-time scoring list.
Cole's goal it took two tries. The first time, he nearly converted a crossing pass from Pat Elynuik. The puck dribbled onto the goal line, and Cole backed up in celebration. But Al Iafrate poked the puck away before it got completely over the line. But the puck went right to Cole, who made sure it went in with a wrist shot over the pile in front of the goal. Cole is four goals shy of his first 20-goal season.
Schoenfeld pulled starting goalie Don Beaupre, replacing him with Olaf Kolzig. About a minute later, Beaupre was put back in.
Washington responded with goals by May and Ridley to tie the score at 2 at the first intermission. May converted a crossing pass from Keith Jones, and Ridley scored a strange goal on the only power play of the first period.
Ridley had the puck and appeared to be deciding what to do when Tim Bergland tried to poke it away. Instead, the puck darted toward the goal and got past Puppa.
Notes: Roman Hamrlik injured his left shoulder in the second period. He played the rest of the game, but Lightning trainer Larry Ness said he is unlikely to play Thursday night against visiting New Jersey. Chris LiPuma or Cory Cross could be called up from Atlanta. Donald Dufresne is likely to go to Atlanta for conditioning. He has missed the past several games with a knee injury. "Now we've got to start winning at home if we really want to make the playoffs," DiMaio said.
The first Street Lightning hockey tournament is Sunday at the ThunderDome. The event will feature 12 teams and three age divisions: 6-9, 10-11 and 12-13. Double-elimination play begins at 10 a.m. on two 50-by-100-foot rinks. Call 229-2658.