You know this team. You know the reputation.
The Lightning are the glamour boys of the NHL. The fast-skating, high-scoring, award-winning wonders of so many regular seasons. A team that dominates the mundane. That shines on smaller stages.
And on Monday afternoon, the Lightning became something else.
Never mind the results of the 3-2 shootout win against Washington in the first round-robin game of Tampa Bay’s postseason journey. That was certainly beneficial for seeding purposes, but it wasn’t as crucial as the statement the Lightning made.
This time, they ain’t gonna be pushed around.
“You’ve got to look the other team in the eye, and maybe in previous years we haven’t done that as well as we should have,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “The years we’ve gone far in the playoffs, we’ve accomplished that goal.
“We’ve brought in some players who have helped us in that regard immensely. It’s a man’s game when you get in the playoffs. The confidence of our group and the no back-down- attitude is definitely something we’ve noticed.”
It was only one afternoon in a game that was not even close to do-or-die, but it felt like the culmination of months of frustration, dedication and, hopefully, anger after last season’s playoff exodus.
It was the additions of Pat Maroon, Zach Bogosian, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow. Players who might not show up in the scoring summary, but who leave impressions all over the opponent.
In the end, it was five seconds of mayhem.
When the Capitals began the second period by stepping into their well-known roles as NHL intimidators, the Lightning did not skate away. Instead, they went right after the bullies. And those five seconds were all it took to make you sit up in your seat, and wonder if there was something different about this Lightning team.
19:48: Washington’s Tom Wilson crushes Ryan McDonagh from behind and sends him sprawling to the ice.
“We showed a lot of character,” defenseman Victor Hedman said.
19:45: Washington’s Radko Gudas drives Anthony Cirelli into the boards.
“As a team we responded very well,” Yanni Gourde said. “We held our own.”
19:44: Before Cirelli can respond, Wilson is back in attack mode.
“It’s the playoffs,” Cooper said.
19:43: Tampa Bay defenseman Erik Cernak comes flying across the ice and nearly knocks Wilson into the first row of the Lightning bench. By now, every Lightning player has a fistful of Washington jersey.
“Cernak stepping up at the right time,” Maroon said. “I thought we were in their face. You know, that’s the kind of team we need to be.”
Except, it isn’t the kind of team Tampa Bay has been in recent years. Oh, Cernak or Cirelli or Gourde might have thrown their gloves down a few times last year, but the Lightning were more like the smart kids on the playground who would embarrass you with their wit.
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This was something entirely different. This was Gourde taking a couple of shots to the back of the head from T.J. Oshie and spinning around to grab him by the throat. This was Hedman standing at the blue line and stopping anything that resembled a rush. This was Tampa Bay thoroughly shutting down Alex Ovechkin’s line for most of the afternoon.
It wasn’t enough to send Washington cowering into the night, but it was a statement, nonetheless. A statement to the other teams in the Eastern Conference. A statement to fans who have wondered if this Lightning roster had the heart to make a run deep into the playoffs.
Mostly, it was a statement to themselves.
They’re the team that got manhandled by Columbus in the first round last year in what may have been the most unlikely postseason sweep in playoff history. And they’re the players who had to live with that for the past 16 months.
Now, they have a chance to start over.
And it looks like they ain’t budging.