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A big shot at legitimacy

So, is today's Lightning game against the Hurricanes big, or isn't it?

It certainly has the look of an important battle.

Tampa Bay is atop the Southeast and leads Carolina by two points. The Lightning's 5-1 victory last month in Tampa was emotional and confrontational. And Carolina's Kevin Weekes, the league's hottest goaltender, used to play for Tampa Bay.

Mix in the sentiment of Lightning general manager Jay Feaster, who agreed a victory at the RBC Center against a team that went to last season's Stanley Cup final would help legitimize the team around the league, and a spicy concoction is brewing.

"It's a four-point game," defenseman Cory Sarich said Saturday. "We have a chance to extend our lead in the division, and that's huge."

Trying to keep a sense of order is John Tortorella, intent on keeping his players focused on the big picture.

"I'm not trying to be a (jerk) about it, but it's one of 82 games," the Lightning coach said. "It's important for this team and organization to take it one game at a time."

The message is correct, but, with all due respect, does not make great copy. So we turn to Feaster.

"It's something the guys all know," he said of the game's importance. "They understand the situation. They understand their record in the division and that this is a team that went to the finals last year.

"We have a lot to prove. I don't think we're any more respected than when we started the season. I don't believe there are two people in 10 who believe this is real. I think there is still a sense this is smoke and mirrors. The guys look at it like we have to do it every night to establish that credibility and respect."

Asked if a victory in Carolina would help that process, Feaster said, "Absolutely."

Center Brad Richards agreed but offered Tortorella-like perspective.

"It is time to step up and get a road win against a tougher team," he said. "But what are you going to say, we're not a good team if we lose? It's too early for that. We're very confident that no matter what happens, we're still a good team."

Both teams are playing well. Carolina is 5-0-2-1 in its past eight games and 4-0-2-1 in the first seven of a nine-game homestand. The Lightning, after three consecutive losses on the road, bounced back to earn seven of eight possible points in four games at home.

Tampa Bay's 4-2 win Friday over the skilled Sharks was impressive. Though San Jose played keepaway at times, the Lightning defended the area in front of the net and minimized serious scoring chances.

Similar discipline is needed against a Carolina team that does not make many mistakes.

"They've always played us tough, and now they're figuring out a way to win," Hurricanes right wing Jeff O'Neill said of the Lightning. "They're playing like an elite team in the East, and we're going to respect them the way they deserve to be respected."

That's not to say things won't get rambunctious. October's meeting included 169 penalty minutes, and Lightning left wing Chris Dingman was suspended two games by the league for a high stick on Jesse Boulerice.

Will memories be long? We'll see.

It will be fun to see if Tampa Bay can solve Weekes, who the Hurricanes acquired last season for Dingman and right wing Shane Willis. Weekes entered Saturday leading the league with a .941 save percentage, was second with a 1.74 goals-against average and tied for second with eight victories.

Any votes yet for a big game?

Defenseman Jassen Cullimore agreed it is "very important" but added, "You can't get too worked up and involved with that either. It's another game. You want to compete as best you can and work as hard as you can, but you don't want to get nervous and worry about everything you do on the ice. You just want to go out and play."

As defenseman Stan Neckar said, "For me, I look at all the teams the same. I want to play the same every game." Tortorella could not have said it better.