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Lightning making it easy to be a hockey fan

They are on the loose now, busting down the ice as if they are skating to catch a runaway stagecoach.

The puck is on Brad Richards' stick, and Ruslan Fedotenko is on his right, and they are moving through the Flyers at roughly the speed your youth went past. They move, hellbent and fearless, like horses in full gallop.

And it is that moment, early in the first period, the question occurs to you.

How can you not like this Lightning team?

Even after Tuesday night's defeat at the hands of the Flyers, the question bears asking. Yes, the Lightning lost, and yes, it was a letdown. In some ways, you could consider it the team's most disappointing loss in five years.

In some ways, that's the best measure of how far the Lightning has come. Losing is disappointing again. After all, losing only stings when the game means something, and when did that happen? Back in '96 when Igor Ulanov was dumping Eric Lindros on his rump?

For years, the ache of losing games was buried by the bigger disappointments of the franchise. It was as if disappointment was a giant stew, and a loss was only another chunk of celery.

That has changed. Even after a defeat, you can feel it, can't you? This particular team has returned the sport of hockey to Tampa Bay, and it has invited you to care all over again.

They are the freshest thing on ice, an enjoyable, embraceable bunch of kids who play a delightful, pedal-to-the-metal style of the game. They play like a punk band: fast, furious, cranking out all the volume they can muster all the time.

If you're still wondering, yes, this team is better.

Better than that, this team is fun.

When a team has been bad beyond belief, the hardest thing to do is to believe. Go ahead. It's okay.

Look, I'll measure my skepticism about this franchise over the past few years against anybody's. For years, the players have tried to fool the coaches, who have tried to fool the owners, who have tried to fool the fans. It has been a giant Three Card Monte game.

But I like this team. I like the cast, I like the chemistry. The Lightning is part speed, part spunk, and barring an injury to Nikolai Khabibulin, it looks as if it's going to hang around awhile.

Consider this. Even as the Flyers overwhelmed the Lightning, forcing the game into halfcourt, there was a feeling of possibility in the final period. After all, nine times this season the Lightning has come from behind to get points. That's a difference.

For a change, the Lightning plays as if the players are having the time of their lives. Every time they play, another bad memory dies. Tuesday, we all forgot about the Roman Hamrlik trade. A few more games, and no one will remember the bad fax machine. If they reach the playoffs, Art Williams is out of all of our heads.

How can you not like this approach to the game? They hold nothing back. They leave their end of the ice in the hands of Khabibulin, and everyone else fast-breaks it the other direction. There are times they leave Khabibulin on an island, and at times the island is Riker's, but the result is a pulsing, pressing game that is a hoot to follow.

How can you not like this mix of characters? There are no superstars in the room, save Khabibulin, no egomaniacal stat freaks to poison the room. There are teams, even good teams, that are difficult to like. This one is easy.

How can you not like this drama? The sad-sack franchise of the NHL has suddenly become the best team a little bit of money can buy. There is something about the Lightning players, and the way they play, that makes you want to take them home with you. You want to tousle Martin St. Louis' hair and chuck Vinny Lecavalier on the shoulder.

As this team wins you over _ and in the days to come, it will _ you will learn more about this team. For years, who has bothered to learn?

This team is going to make you want to introduce yourself. You're going to want to learn about Vinny's new Porsche, and Richards' father the lobster fisherman, and St. Louis, the human water bug, dashing and darting across the ice with that extra gear of his. You're going to want to learn more about Dave Andreychuk, who is going to make it to the Hall of Fame without being able to skate, which is sort of like making the track Hall of Fame without being able to run.

You're going to want to know about Andre Roy, the delightful, combustible goofball, the guy who sings New York, New York in the shower and who likes to sidle up to rookie Alex Svitov to share some words in Russian even though the only Russian Roy knows is swear words. You're going to want to know about Vinny Prospal, who has been known to drop onto the ice after a mistake in practice and rip off pushups. You're going to want to know about the week Brad Lukowich spent as a roadie for the group Nickelback.

This is what success does. It makes teams interesting. It makes people fascinating.

Winning is always sweetest when it is unexpected. Remember 1997, when the Bucs finally reached the playoffs? It was this wonderful little glow of overachievement and accomplishment, and it was immediately replaced by high expectations. There are some Bucs fans who haven't smiled since.

For the Lightning, this could be its '97. Who knows what the future holds? Success reshuffles the deck.

Today? Today is fun.

For now, that's all that should matter. For now.

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