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Lightning

Lecavalier makes it a day - and a play - to cherish

By GARY SHELTON
Published April 26, 2004

TAMPA - The play took a matter of seconds. Perhaps, it will last a lifetime.

This is where it happened, on a bumpy sheet of ice on a humid afternoon in the dying moments of a period. Remember that. It was in a playoff game when the home team led only on the scoreboard, when the visitors had taken over, when the game was slipping away. Do not forget.

It was then, at that precise moment, Vinny Lecavalier allowed greatness to engulf him.

Fifty years from now, when his sticks are hung over his fireplace, when his walls are filled with plaques and gray streaks Lecavalier's hair, small children will gather around his chair and ask. "Grandad, when did you become a star?"

And Lecavalier will smile, and he'll give them the shrug, and he will talk of the game, and the moment, when he thrust a dagger into the hearts of the Canadiens.

It was the day he became Joe Montana, the day he became Tom Brady.

He will talk of a game when Montreal, the team of his childhood, swarmed like locusts over the Lightning. The Canadians seemed to have Tampa Bay outnumbered, and the ice seemed tilted toward Tampa Bay's net, and the sound of the puck bouncing off Nikolai Khabibulin was like popcorn popping.

Then Sheldon Souray lost the puck skating up the dirt road they call ice on afternoon games, and Cory Sarich made a hustle play and flicked the puck backward. (Souray is the guy who punched Sarich in the snoot in Game 1. Give this round to Sarich.)

As simple as that, Lecavalier had the puck on his stick and space in front of him. He pushed the puck left, right, left again, right again. He shot a low fastball to the right of Jose Theodore, and with 2.4 seconds left in the second period, the game and the series had been altered.

Perhaps, Lecavalier's career had been altered, too.

After all, this was the day he became Reggie Jackson, the day he became Kirk Gibson.

Forget the money, forget the marketing. We are talking about men and moments here. We are talking about legends and legacies. We are talking about a play that could finally elevate Lecavalier into the level of excellence he has been only in glimpses.

Let's be honest. Lecavalier is a very good hockey player, and as such, he stands to make a very good living for a very long time.

On the other hand, Lecavalier could be more. He could be the kind of player who makes the heads of children, and their parents, turn as he walks past.

With Lecavalier, that has been the frustration. From time to time, Lecavalier has teased us with greatness. He has flashed it and covered it up, flirted with it and then backed away. There are those who will suggest the critics have been too hard on Vinny. There are others who will suggest that, perhaps, they have not been hard enough.

Moments such as this, when Lecavalier talked a game off the ledge, when he handed his team a 2-0 lead in the series, show how good he can be. Moments such as this are the ringing of a telephone. Pick it up, Vinny. Greatness is calling.

Do that, the world might remember this as the day you became Muhammad Ali, the day you became Michael Jordan.

Lecavalier will look you in the eye and, as pleasant as always, will tell you he isn't playing any differently than he was against the Islanders. He'll tell you he is merely getting more opportunities now, as if he is an innocent bystander in such occurrences.

It isn't true. Lecavalier wasn't horrible against the Islanders, but he wasn't special, either. He has been significantly better against the Canadiens, and everyone but him seems aware of it. In two games, with everyone he has met in his life watching him, he has four goals and an assist. He has been a monster.

What great timing. The playoffs are when the world pays attention. Light it up in a regular-season game against, say, Columbus on a Wednesday night, and all it adds up to is a nice set of numbers and a cool car in the driveway. The playoffs, on the other hand, are when legends are made. If a former player walks down the street and heads turn, it is probably because of what he accomplished in the postseason.

On a night like this, a player can be Reggie Jackson. He can be Kirk Gibson.

There was something to Lecavalier's play that felt huge. It drained the fight from the Canadiens, it restored order for the Lightning. More than that, it felt like an arrival. In the evolution of Lecavalier, it felt like a step toward the star that has been expected for so long.

There is a confounding nature to Lecavalier, almost as if he does not quite grasp how good he can be. Ask him about passing up an open shot, and he'll shrug and tell you the pass was the better play. Ask about a scoreless streak in the playoffs, and he'll shrug and tell you he's playing well.

There is a difference between satisfactory and special, however. Perhaps a night such as this one will allow Lecavalier to recognize it. Perhaps there will be more moments, more memories, more last-second shots that singe the net and alter a series.

It would be nice if this was the game where Vinny got it, the game that showed him the sheer delight of being the best player in the locker room. It would be nice to believe that as Lecavalier was showing us what he can be, he took notice himself.

Perhaps, just perhaps, it was more than a memorable play. Perhaps it was a step toward unforgettable.

After all, this was the night he was Godzilla, the night he was King Kong.

[Last modified April 26, 2004, 01:10:13]


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