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Lightning gets in last punch

Published April 28, 2004

MONTREAL - One team turned tough Tuesday night. And it wasn't until the game was over that you realized it was the team getting beat up.

Lightning players got banged around by the Canadiens in Game 3. They got slammed into boards and knocked to the ice. They were pushed, prodded, elbowed, grabbed and mugged.

They were subjected to a crowd in a frenzy and an opponent in a tizzy. They got rattled, angry and maybe, at times, intimidated.

And still they won.

They took all Montreal could give, and asked for more.

They started slowly in the first period and blew a lead in the third. They came within 16.5 seconds of losing and are now 60 minutes from clinching.

Vinny Lecavalier scored a game-tying goal with a backward shot between his legs, and Brad Richards scored an overtime winner by banking his shot off the goaltender's left skate.

The Lightning entered the playoffs as the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed. But it wasn't until Tuesday night that they really felt like a favorite.

It's a remarkable thing to see lives changing and reputations growing before your eyes. To see players of potential becoming players of note.

"To keep our composure, to keep our wits about us in a place like this? That's good stuff," Lightning coach John Tortorella said. "Do they still surprise me? A little bit, yeah. I'm not going to b.s. you.

"We've made some pretty incredible jumps, but there's more to come. There's still a lot more to come."

Two games into the series, the Canadiens were looking like props on Tampa Bay's stage. While the Lightning danced, Montreal had stood in place.

Pick a category and the Lightning had been better. In the net? Better. The transition game? Better. Forechecks? Better.

The Canadiens had few alternatives and even less time. So they sought a solution that did not require a complete revamping.

The Canadiens figured they could be tougher. So they were. And it still did not matter.

The strategy was new, which made introductions necessary. So, should the Canadiens lead with the left, or the right?

And when, exactly, should the flying elbow make an appearance?

It actually happened quickly. Seconds, even, after the opening faceoff. Martin St. Louis was near the boards by his own blue line when Saku Koivu tried to leave him there indefinitely. It was a glancing blow, but the message was heard. Soon Andrei Markov and Lecavalier were in the penalty box.

By the time the first period ended, 10 roughing, unsportsmanlike conduct or elbowing penalties had been called.

At one point, the penalty boxes lacked only goaltenders. Five Canadiens and four Lightning players were stuffed in simultaneously.

"They came out trying to take us out of our game," defenseman Nolan Pratt said. "Look who they were going after: Louie took some hits, Vinny did too. For about 10 or 12 minutes, it worked. We kind of got out of our game, we were running around. But, after a while, we brought it back together.

"It wasn't the prettiest way to do it, but we got it done."

This is not the first time a team decided it could push the Lightning around. The temptation, after all, is strong. Some of the Lightning stars, you may have noticed, come in smaller portions.

You look at the first line and figure St. Louis could be the appetizer. On the second line, Brad Richards would make a nice snack.

"It was pretty evident," Tortorella said. "But that's part of it. Vinny and Marty realize it and they need to accept that challenge. That's part of playoff hockey."

And that is especially true for the Lightning, a team that is more finesse than brute force.

The Lightning has made its mark with an offense built around speed, which gives the impression it is not a team that can handle the tough moments.

But that characterization is too shallow. It is speed, yes, but it is also the relentless application of that speed.

The Lightning wears teams down. Players keep coming in waves. An opponent might control Tampa Bay for long stretches of a game, but let one player relax for one moment and the Lightning is on a rush to the net.

The Canadiens saw it in Game 2 when Lecavalier turned a Sheldon Souray mistake into an insurance goal late in the second period.

They saw it again Tuesday night when, after an errant Souray shot, the puck was quickly distributed to Cory Stillman at mid ice and he beat Jose Theodore.

"The biggest thing is their transition game off turnovers," Souray said. "It's incredible how fast they move on turnovers."

The Lightning is fast, for sure.

And, if Tuesday night is to believed, it is fast becoming the team to beat this season.

[Last modified April 28, 2004, 01:05:41]

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