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Lightning gets early wakeup call

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2003

TAMPA -- It's all coming back now. That familiar anticipation. The tingling in the veins, followed by the quickening of the pulse.

And then the three-to-zip score.

Yup, the Lightning is back in the playoffs.

It's been seven years, two ownership changes, one move across the bridge and a roster upheaval since the Lightning last saw the postseason.

And, yet, Game 1 feels awfully familiar.

Remarkable how long the wait seemed and how quickly the answer arrived. It took one period to get anxious, two periods to get impatient and three periods to wonder if a sellout was such a good idea after all.

Oh, maybe it wasn't all that bad. Seven years ago, in that inaugural playoff game against the Flyers, it took about 42 seconds for the Lightning to spot its elders a 3-0 lead.

This time, the fellas lasted darn near 42 minutes before being passed by faith and cross checked by reality.

"The guys know now what the intensity level is in the playoffs," said captain Dave Andreychuk. "They'll know better next game."

That's the hope. That's the wish, the goal, the prayer. That Game 1 was a bad case of jitters. That the Lightning really does understand it can have players with sticks standing in front of the opponent's net.

Tampa Bay, after all, has been so very good when it comes to a setback like this. The Lightning has survived this season by ignoring limitations and overcoming difficulties. This is a team that has been at its best when the odds were long and the doubts were greatest.

In that sense, this should do it. Because, in about two hours Thursday night, the Lightning lost much of what it gained the past two months.

The whole idea of finishing ahead of Washington in the division was to ensure home ice advantage. Losing the opener tends to negate that.

Based on recent history, the Lightning already has stumbled into a deep hole. In conference quarterfinals since 2000, the team that won the opener went on to win the series 18 of 24 times.

You may argue Tampa Bay will not be adversely affected. You could point out that it has been a bit better than adequate on the road in recent days.

But you should also know Tampa Bay is a little shy of horrendous when that road leads to the MCI Center. The Lightning last won in D.C. in 1999.

"We earned home ice and kind of lost it in one game," Andreychuk said. "It's not the end of the world, but now we have to take home ice away from them."

Frankly, this is not a huge surprise. The Lightning finished one point ahead of the Capitals in the regular season, which, technically, makes it the favored seed. But most would agree the Caps have a more talented roster. And no one can dispute Washington is far more experienced.

A team as young as Tampa Bay, a team that has gone this long hearing only rumors of the playoffs, was bound to be tight in Game 1.

So, from that perspective, this was not a disaster. In some ways, the kids actually did well for themselves.

They have proven they can hit. That they are not going to back down. Which is what you do when others may question your place. Pick out some tough cuss and knock him on his tush. So Pavel Kubina stuck Jaromir Jagr into the boards. And Cory Sarich laid out Brendan Witt with a shoulder to the sternum.

They bashed and they banged. They were willing to pick fights and seemed to take joy in behaving badly. They played with urgency and verve.

It was the other things they lacked. Like offense. And momentum.

While the intensity rises in the playoffs, the scoring opportunities diminish. And that means taking advantage when you can.

"You look at the score, see 3-0, and say 'Ah ... it's a blowout.' But it wasn't," coach John Tortorella said. "There were so many little things that happened. The little things changed the game."

It was not special teams, it was not a star like Jagr taking over the game. It was, in some ways, an inch here or a toenail there.

Robert Lang knocks a deflected puck out of mid-air for the first goal. Vinny Lecavalier takes a wondrous pass from Vinny Prospal in front of the net and Olaf Kolzig saves it by the tip of his skate.

Little things. Huge impact.

If you care, the Lightning fought valiantly to the very end. Of course, that's rarely mentioned high in Custer's bio, either.

But it does bode well considering the team's personality.

Perhaps this is what the guys needed. Maybe this is their way of getting back to the mindset of the eternal underdog.

They do not have to worry about being overwhelmed by the Capitals. The Lightning is just as tough and has at least as much heart.

Now it needs to show it can be more aggressive and play with as much skill.

Otherwise, the end will be just as familiar as the beginning.

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