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Expect the unexpected

By null, Times Sports Columnist
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 29, 2003

TAMPA - At moments such as this, you start talking of destiny.

Of planets that have aligned and muses that have begun to sing. You look at Lightning players as if they hold all the answers and are carefully choosing the time and place to allow the story to unfold.

This, of course, is a crock.

The Lightning is not a team blessed by providence. In no way can Tampa Bay claim fate as a partner. These guys do not win by fluke, by karma, by large margins.

You want to know what you can count on? What's predetermined about this crew? Try a ton of sweat and a handful of sutures. They grunt, they grind and, occasionally, they shock the bejeebers out of you.

Yes, it's happened again. The Lightning won the third game of a series after losing the first two.

Against Washington a couple of weeks ago, Tampa Bay blew three separate one-goal leads before winning 4-3 in Game 3.

Against New Jersey on Monday night, Tampa Bay tossed a 3-0 lead to the side before winning 4-3 in another pivotal Game 3.

It's highly unlikely this series will evolve in the same way as the first - with the Lightning winning four straight - but do you want to rule it out?

"This team has been down low for so long, we've got something to prove. We really feel that," left wing Chris Dingman said. "It seems like every time we lose a game, everyone is ready to count us out."

By now, we should be immune to their surprises. We should anticipate the unforeseen and occasionally expect the remarkable.

For heaven's sake, we should know better than to assume the end is near.

It was not so long ago that to be a Lightning fan meant to doubt the playoffs would ever arrive. Not just a couple of years ago. A couple of months ago, too.

In mid February, this team was ninth in an eight-team playoff race. And yet, when the calendar turns to May, Tampa Bay still will be playing.

It might not seem so astonishing if the Lightning was on a roll. If it was winning with ease. If Nikolai Khabibulin was carrying the team on his back or Vinny Lecavalier was turning into the game's next great scoring star.

But it has not worked that way. Not even close. Lecavalier has gone missing against New Jersey. Khabibulin is giving up a consistent three goals a game.

The Lightning was outscored by Washington in the first round and still won the series in six games.

"Maybe we need a wakeup call before we start playing like this," defenseman Cory Sarich said. "But I wish someone would set the alarm earlier."

In half its games, the Lightning gets off to a poor start. In the other half, it plays as if Esteban Yan were the closer.

For some, the inability to hold a lead can be an infrequent hindrance. For the Lightning, it has threatened to become an embarrassment. The memory of an otherwise remarkable postseason.

In nine playoff games, the Lightning has taken a lead in regulation 11 times. It has lost the lead eight times.

There were the three blown leads in Game 3 against Washington. There were two more blown leads in Game 2 against New Jersey. Turns out, those were just the warmup for the amazing second-period collapse Monday.

In less than nine minutes, the Lightning went from a 3-0 lead to another tie.

"You don't want to script it that way," coach John Tortorella said. "But it's another lesson. Something we've battled through."

Young teams are supposed to crumble when introduced to pressure. Inexperienced teams tend to fall apart when adversity calls.

So how does the Lightning do it?

"I honestly don't know. It's just a testament to the character in that room. That's the big thing," general manager Jay Feaster said. "I'm amazed. The one thing you can say about this team is they never say die. And the only way you can explain that is by pointing to their character."

Who knows when it began. Maybe it was that comeback at Florida in the season opener. Maybe it was that team dinner in Atlanta on Feb. 13 when players realized their legacy would be shaped in the final 25 games.

Maybe the final lesson of perseverance did not arrive until the Lightning was blown out in the first two games against Washington.

Whenever it arrived, wherever it arrived, it is here now.

It has nothing to do with destiny. Or with fate.

Just resilience. And spunk.

Just a team unwilling to let a season end without putting up a fight.

"Everybody was talking about the pressure on some of the kids. The youth of our team," Tortorella said. "But this is where it all starts. This is how you become a player in this league. Enjoy the pressure, revel in it.

"Because you don't get here too often. Take this opportunity to make a name for yourself."

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