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With one win, Lightning looks like a Cup contender again

Lightning center Cedric Paquette, playing some of his best hockey of the season, checks defenseman Kevan Miller into the boards. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
Lightning center Cedric Paquette, playing some of his best hockey of the season, checks defenseman Kevan Miller into the boards. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Apr. 3, 2018
Updated Apr. 4, 2018

TAMPA — Well, hello there, Lightning. Welcome back.

Don't know where you've been for the past few weeks. And who knows how long you're going to stick around.

But you certainly were a sight for your fans' sore eyes Tuesday. You looked strong. You looked tough. You looked good.

You looked like Stanley Cup contenders.

And when was the last time someone said that about the Lightning?

What a weird season this has been. For three months, the Lightning looked unstoppable. It looked to be the best hockey team on the planet. It felt safe to book a trip to the Stanley Cup final and map out parade routes.

Then, with no warning, the ice started to crack underneath the Lightning. There was no specific moment, no major injury, no prolonged losing streak or anything like that. Just one day we all woke up and said, "Hey, what's wrong with the Lightning?"

Lately, something has been missing. Something has felt off. Even when Tampa Bay was winning games, something didn't look quite right. Most of all, regardless of its record and spot near the top of the standings, it felt as if the Lightning was no longer a serious threat for the Stanley Cup.

Then came Tuesday night in a showdown against its bogeyman — the Boston Bruins. It was a game that Lightning followers approached with as much dread as anticipation.

But Tuesday changed everything. The Lightning had that old, familiar look again.

In a span of just a couple of hours, fans have gone from "Wake up, you guys!" to "Bring on the playoffs!" That's what happens when you play the way the Lightning played Tuesday night in a 4-0 domination.

Now, on the surface, this was still just a regular-season game. One of 82. But, make no mistake, the Lightning needed this one. It needed this one bad.

Call it a statement win. Defenseman Victor Hedman called it the best of the season.

In the end, it might not make a difference in the final standings. It might not lead to a first-place finish in the Atlantic Division. It might not lead to home-ice advantage in a potential series against these big, bad Bruins.

But this was a big game, more so for Tampa Bay than Boston.

Yes, the Lightning needed to play well. But regardless of how it played, the Lightning really needed to win. If for no other reason than to prove to Boston — and more importantly, itself — that it can actually beat the Bruins in a game that matters.

And this game mattered.

I'm not talking about how we're in the last week of the regular season and the Lighting and Bruins are now tied for first place in the division and first overall in the East. That feels like a subplot, albeit a significant subplot, to what was really at stake Tuesday night.

This game was all about the Lightning's confidence. In three previous games this season, not only had the Lightning not beaten the Bruins, it hadn't even led against the Bruins. Based on what we had seen, there was absolutely no reason to believe the Lightning could beat the Bruins in a best-of-seven playoff series.

"There has been a lot of chatter in the media about getting this win to validate us," Lightning forward Ryan Callahan said. "But we have confidence in here. … We were worried about the two points more than mentally getting a win against Boston."

Actually, the unsteady way the Lightning has played the past couple of months had many wondering if Tampa Bay could even survive a first-round series to get to a potential second-round date with Boston.

Yet, even though it played without injured captain Steven Stamkos, the Lightning went out and clobbered the Bruins.

"Nobody wants to go through a season getting swept by anybody," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "Probably psyche-wise, (it was) good for the guys."

Tampa Bay still has two games left in the regular season, and the Lightning needs to consider how much to play, or possibly rest, Stamkos and anyone else with a bump or bruise. It would love to finish with the best record in the East, but what happens starting next week is way more important than what happens this week.

Then again, what happened Tuesday was huge. The Lightning proved it can beat the Bruins.

Most of all, the Lightning proved it is, once again, Stanley Cup contenders.