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A flame rekindled, a bond cemented

Published October 6, 2005

TAMPA - Good to see an old friend again.

Good to see he's doing well.

There is nothing quite as warm as reunions and rekindled feelings. Time flies past, life goes on and, after a while, even the best moments fade into memory. Then one day, you come across a familiar face in a familiar place, and it feels like salve across cracked skin.

How long has it been? That long? Goodness, you don't look a day older.

So it was Wednesday night at the St. Pete Times Forum, when a team and a sport finally came into the cold. The Lightning returned, hockey returned, winning returned, and frankly, you would have to be pretty jaded not to feel fairly terrific about all of it.

The boys are back.

And hockey, once again, is open for business.

Remember this? Remember the flow and fury of a sport? Remember the personalities and the pluck of a team? For almost a year and a half, both of them had been held hostage by morons and madmen. At the best of all possible times, the Lightning found itself idled by the worst of all possible ideas.

Wednesday, that all ended. The Lightning finally strapped on its skates on a night that mattered, and just like that, the bond between a team and a town seemed rebuilt.

It felt like it used to feel. More than anything, that was the real celebration of Wednesday night's 5-2 win over Carolina.

Say what you will about pomp. Yes, it was nice to see the championship banner and the parade of trophies (after all, the old Lightning trophy case used to be a night stand in Phil Esposito's den) and the old players skating through the smoke to new cheers. Another time, and those would have been the keeper moments of a champion returning to the ice.

This time? This time, it was the new sights that made you think of the old ones. It was a team, mostly intact, beginning another journey.

Remember Dave Andreychuk? The last time we saw him, he was kissing a trophy. Wednesday night, that was Andreychuk diving headlong on a penalty kill to tap the puck out of danger.

Remember Brad Richards? The last time we saw him, he was turning the playoffs into a personal highlight reel, maturing by a year every day. Wednesday night, that was Richards ripping a shot past Martin Gerber as if to suggest the growing hasn't stopped.

Remember Vinny Lecavalier? The last time we saw him, he was skating around the ice with the Stanley Cup, his mouth agape as he screamed in joy? Wednesday night, that was Lecavalier bouncing a shot off Niclas Wallin for a goal.

Remember Pavel Kubina? The last time we saw him, he was launching himself headfirst across the ice in celebration of a title. Wednesday, that was Kubina, with the Lightning down two men on a power play, chopping former teammate Cory Stillman's stick so hard it broke in half.

Remember Marty St. Louis? The last time we saw him, there was blood streaming down his face. Wednesday night, that was St. Louis bearing down on the Carolina goal in the third period. He didn't score. He didn't seem happy about it.

The last time we saw Fredrik Modin, he was planted in front of a goal like a stoplight. The last time we saw Ruslan Fedotenko, he was the star of Game Seven despite a face that looked as if someone had dropped a chainsaw onto it. The last time we saw Dan Boyle, he was talking about rebuilding a house.

That was all of them on against the Hurricanes, flying around with a memory of yesterday and a promise of tomorrow. Trying to rebuild a house, as it were.

The problem with reunions, of course, is that it's easy to become lost in the past. On a franchise that has rarely wanted to bring up yesterday, it could be a problem.

For a night, however, it seemed as if the Lightning seemed intent on writing a few more stories. Yes, 2004 was nice, and the Lightning will remember it fondly. Someday. Check back in about 20 years.

Today? Today, there is another crop in the field. There are new waters to sail.

For Lightning coach John Tortorella, the Captain Bligh of this cruise, that pregame ceremony was the last collection of seconds in which he wants to talk about the championship season. Even when the banner was being raised, you got the feeling Old Don't-Look-Back would have preferred to be somewhere writing down his lines. Again.

As for this year's chances? Who knows? It is a long season, and injuries mount and chemistry is challenged and fortune changes.

Still, if you treat opening night as a promise of things to come, this team looks as if it will be entertaining.

Consider the new goaltender, John Grahame. For a night, Grahame looked nimble enough to hold up his end. He made several saves from firing squad distance. Consider the old forward, Vinny Prospal, who scored 81 seconds into his return to Tampa Bay.

Cosmetic changes aside, this was the same old friend you used to know.

Even now, on his way to somewhere else, you would recognize him anywhere.

[Last modified October 6, 2005, 01:14:18]

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