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A loss sends the Devils to the depths and gives the Lightning a spot in . . . // Playoff heaven

A few watched on television. Some worked the phones. And at least one didn't have a clue.

But when it was all done, and the worst team in the NHL was finished dethroning the defending Stanley Cup champions, and the Lightning was actually, officially, unequivocally in the playoffs, the reaction was the same.

"Is that unbelievable or what?" team captain Paul Ysebaert said.

"Unbelievable," defenseman Cory Cross said.

"Unbelievable," winger Rob Zamuner said.

Believe it.

The lowly Ottawa Senators actually beat New Jersey 5-2 on Saturday afternoon, rallying from a 2-1 deficit to score four goals in the third period and make the Devils the league's first defending champion in 26 years to fail to make the playoffs one season after sipping from the Cup.

And you know what that means: The Devils are out, so Tampa Bay's Lightning is in with its first playoff berth during a four-season franchise history.

The results of the Lightning's regular-season finale, scheduled this afternoon against Philadelphia in the ThunderDome, will affect only the order of finish for qualifying teams in the NHL's Eastern Conference.

Go ahead, celebrate. It's for real.

Jump up and down. Zamuner did.

"Grats has a satellite dish," said Zamuner, who watched the Senators-Devils game at the home of teammate Chris Gratton, the same Chris Gratton who on Friday swore he would not watch Saturday's game because the last time he watched the Devils they won. "When Ottawa scored to go ahead, we jumped up and down like little kids at a midget tournament. . . . Oh, it feels so good. Feels so good."

Not everyone, though, got the feel-good feeling from watching the game. Some, like Ysebaert, waited for teammates such as Shawn Burr to pick up the telephone.

"I told Burrsy to keep calling me to give me updates," Ysebaert said. "He called and said it was 3-2 (Ottawa), and I said, "Get outta town.' Then Brenda's mom (Ysebaert's mother-in-law) called and said it was 5-2. Unbelievable."

"I didn't watch it," Cross said. "I got only four hours of sleep last night and was trying to sleep all day but couldn't. My friend from New York was calling me. He said, "Ottawa tied it up 2-2.' Then he kept calling back: "Ottawa scored another . . . and another.' My stomach was a mess. I was nervous the whole afternoon. I still can't believe it. Then I called a few of the guys, and everybody was phoning everybody else."

Ysebaert's call-waiting function beeped constantly as he spoke. Zamuner returned home to nine phone messages. Cross finally found someone who didn't already know.

"I got Billy Houlder," Cross said. "He didn't know anything at all was happening. I said, "We're in.' He said, "No way.' He couldn't believe it."

But it is believable.

The team that said it fully expected to make it (but couldn't quite be certain) made it. It was the team that at times this season couldn't seem to shoot straight, the team that at one point was 4-10-4 and wondering what was going on.

"We didn't come out like gangbusters," Ysebaert said, "but I think that was just a growing experience that comes with having new faces."

Indeed, 11 of 25 Lightning players were not around last season. But that didn't stop coach Terry Crisp from melding them into a group that began to believe in both his system and themselves.

"There were lots of times when we were saying, "Man, are we ever going to get back to .500 hockey?' " Ysebaert said. "But you go through ups and downs like that, and now we're up.

"I just want to commend all the coaches and players. This city should realize what effort it took to do this. . . . It's like a small business. You don't make it a million-dollar company overnight. It takes years and years."

The Lightning realized its first small fortune in four.

"Watching (the Senators-Devils game), we were saying, "You never know what's going to happen,' " said Zamuner, one of five original Lightning players who have been through it all since the fall of 1992. "It was an emotional roller coaster. I think that kind of sums up our year, just watching that game _ being high; saying, "Oh'; being high.

"This is great for Tampa Bay, great for the organization, great for the fans. They've been great to us. Everybody involved should be proud because they're all a part of it. That's what makes it special."

PLAYOFF TICKETS

Where to call

Lighting ticket office: 229-8800

ThunderDome box office: 825-3334

Ticketmaster: Tampa 287-8844; St. Petersburg 898-2100; Central Florida (407) 839-3900; North Florida (904) 353-3309.

Where to buy

At ThunderDome box office: Open weekdays 10 a.m.-5 p.m., today 10 a.m., remains open during and after game. No personal checks. Lightning season ticket holders who already have reserved and paid for playoff tickets may pick them up in Fanland immediately following today's game. Otherwise, the tickets will be delivered by UPS starting Monday.

At Lightning offices: 501 E Kennedy Blvd. Open weekdays 9 a.m.-6 p.m.

Ticket prices

Location Season ticketholder Individual games

AA $52 $58

A $38 $42

Club $38 $42

B $33 $37

D $24.50 $28

E $15 $18

GA $12.50 $15

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