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Lightning makes it! // Tampa Bay outlasts the defending champs in a wild playoff race.

They're in. Honest, they are.

This time, you can believe it. This time, you can celebrate.

The wildest, wackiest ride of them all is complete. The Tampa Bay Lightning, that lovable lot of unlikelies, is in the playoffs.

With a game to spare.

So who said it was close?

If you want to wait until a day or so to believe, however, that is understandable. For a month now, this playoff race has been like riding a roller coaster on rocket fuel. One day, it seemed so certain Tampa Bay was in the playoffs the tendency was to talk about possible playoff opponents. The next, it seemed so far out the talk turned to possible draft picks.

The Lightning was in control; it was out of control. It was losing to the Senators and the Sabres, and it was beating the Rangers and the Panthers. It was falling off a cliff, and it was learning to fly.

And it survived. Miracle of miracles, a team from Tampa Bay was in the darnedest playoff race the NHL has seen in years, and it did not fold. It outlasted the pressure that eventually made the defending Stanley Cup champions wilt.

Tampa Bay loves sports, but it has been so bad at them you might mistake it for a member of the math club. For that reason, fans should be warned not to take offense at that gorgeous little y next to its name in the standings. That means it has clinched the playoffs. You have to go back to the Bucs of 1983 to find such a mark beside a team from Tampa Bay in a major sport.

But if it is so incredible the Lightning has reached the playoffs, perhaps it is more so that today's game is unnecessary.

For two months, it seemed that destiny had purchased tickets to today's game against the Philadelphia Flyers. Every game the Lightning played was more important than the previous one, and after a while, it seemed the team was climbing a staircase. The last step, of course, was today's game.

Had the New Jersey Devils won Saturday, against the worst team in hockey, the Lightning would have to win or tie against the Flyers to get into the playoffs. If that seemed extreme, it also seemed just. After all, a story this good is not supposed to end until the final reel, is it?

Instead, the Devils found themselves with a size 12 Adam's apple and a size 2 neck. They gagged Saturday, altering the intensity, if not the volume, of today's game.

Turns out, it will not be about competition. It will be about celebration. After a month of ever-mounting pressure, the Lightning has a day to decompress, to relax, to worry only about climbing even higher in the standings.

And isn't that neat?

Just think, a day a season ends, and Tampa Bay fans have a chance to celebrate a goal already accomplished. By the final game, most Tampa Bay teams, and fans, just want a season to get over with so no one has to taste the bile any longer. This time, we have an afternoon of curtain calls and final bows. We have an encore.

If ever a Tampa Bay team deserved applause, it is this one. Stack up its talent, and you don't find anything special. There is not a dynamic player to carry this team and invite everyone else along. This is a team of grunters and grinders that is oblivious to its own limitations.

Perhaps it should not surprise anyone this team made the playoffs. After all, it was an often-repeated goal from the team president down to the backup Zamboni driver. What was impressive was the way the team did not flinch when the stakes got higher. Not when it seemed it might take 89 points to get it. Not when the Lightning found itself in a head-to-head sprint with the defending NHL champions.

It could have gone wrong so easily. This is a team that started 4-10-4, a team that lost two games 10-0 and another 9-2. It was a team that lost five consecutive games to teams below it in the standings in the critical month of March. At any point, it would have been easy for this team to stop believing, to ride out the season on cruise control.

It did not. Somehow, some way, it clawed itself back into race. It had a 28-day period when it was 10-1-2. Rob Zamuner, the very face of effort, had a four-game period when he either won or tied the game. It learned to stand up to the Panthers, winning the past three games against its bitter rival.

And, along the way, it made believers of us all.

It will never be this special again. You know that, don't you? By making the playoffs this year, the Lightning has established a new minimum acceptance level. From now on, even in a race this great, the focus will be on what happens once the playoffs begin. (Example: Do you think Devils' fans thought this playoff race was neat, even before the team was eliminated?)

This year, it is enough that Tampa Bay is included.

If you want to check the standings one more time, just to be sure, it's okay. The team will understand.

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