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Lightning plays one perfectly

If it played all season as it did Tuesday night, perhaps the Lightning wouldn't be in the mess it is in, still fighting for an Eastern Conference playoff position.

Who knows? If it played all season as it did in a 5-0 victory over Ottawa, maybe Tampa Bay would be riding out the rest of the season and waiting for the NHL playoffs.

"We'd be a lot higher in the standings than we are now," center Chris Gratton said. "That's for sure."

But no.

Instead this team seems bound and determined to keep us coming back until the very end, giving 17,873 at the Ice Palace games like Tuesday's to make a real mess of the race.

On some nights it presents you with the Lightning that lost five out of six in its last homestand, a club that can't shoot straight and can't keep closed the lid on its own goal.

And on some nights you get the Lightning like the team Tuesday that managed to put together all that is right: great goaltending by Rick Tabaracci, dependable defense led by deadline-day trade acquisition Jeff Norton and offensive output the likes of which Tampa Bay has seen only one other time this month.

"That was a well-rounded game for us," Tabaracci said. "Everybody was firing, and we played solid defense all the way."

Tampa Bay was up 3-0 before the game was seven minutes old, getting goals from Alex Selivanov, Paul Ysebaert and Patrick Poulin before the Senators mustered anything more than a single shot on goal.

When John Cullen converted Selivanov's pass from behind the net at 3:39 of the second, Damian Rhodes was pulled in favor of Ron Tugnutt and the Lightning settled in to watch this one end. Dino Ciccarelli added a power-play goal in the third for good measure, and Tampa Bay was right back in a race it is neither leading nor _ so far, at least _ losing.

"We've played really inconsistently all season, but, hey, we're right in the thick of things," Gratton said. "And now is a really good time to get consistent."

The win, its second in three games, pulled Tampa Bay out of a point tie with Ottawa for 10th and past Hartford (a 4-0 loser to Colorado) into ninth, three points behind the owners of the last two post-season spots (idle Montreal and Washington, a 3-2 winner over St. Louis).

Without the victory, the Lightning would have found itself five points out of eighth _ with just nine games to go in the regular season.

"We knew we had 10 to go," Ciccarelli said, "and everybody came out with a good attitude."

Selivanov struck first, driving to the net and getting Rhodes to go down at 1:11 of the opening period. Just more than two minutes later, Ysebaert scored on his own rebound, only after Rhodes stopped shots by Bill Houlder and Jeff Toms. Poulin finished the barrage at 6:05, going one-on-one to beat Rhodes through the pads with a short-handed turnover pass from Rob Zamuner.

Ottawa outshot Tampa Bay 18-1 over the remaining 13:55 of the period, including one two-minute term with nine straight shots. But the Lightning made it through the span unscathed as Tabaracci came up big with a rolling save on a rebound chance by Daniel Alfredsson, and Zamuner, Mikael Andersson and Cory Cross killed 47 seconds of a five-on-three.

Tabaracci's 28-save shutout, his fifth of the season, was preserved late in the third when, with just more than five minutes to go, an apparent goal by Randy Cunneyworth was disallowed because the puck was struck with a high stick.

"I guess it's just one of those nights," Tabaracci said, "when you get some breaks."

And make some, too. Now, if only there were more of those nights "Hindsight is 20/20 when you talk about things like that," Ysebaert said. "But you're right, we have been a streaky team all year long. Maybe this one will start a new streak."

And maybe the Lightning can start to clean up the mess it made.

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