When I wrote back in September that I thought the Tampa Bay Lightning would make the playoffs this season, I was thinking they would be battling for the seventh or eighth spot in the East. Tied for the most points in the conference with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh heading into a big game against the Penguins on Wednesday night? Not sure anyone saw that one coming.
"It's pretty good, but it's a long season," Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier told ESPN.com on Tuesday night after his team's 1-0 overtime win at Washington. "A team like us, we're never going to give up. We're a hard-working team. We play well together. Everyone is contributing, everyone has a role on the team, and I think that's why we're having a lot of success right now."
I watched Tampa's thrilling win Tuesday night, a victory that gave the Bolts a one-point lead in the Southeast Division. Netminder Dwayne Roloson was easily the first star with a shutout in his first start with the Lightning, but the best skater on the Tampa side was No. 4. It was vintage Lecavalier out there Tuesday night; he was flying. He led all Tampa forwards with 20:42 of ice time, the most since his mid-December return.
Best you've felt in a while, Vinny?
"Yeah, since I've come back from injury, I've been feeling really good," said Lecavalier, who has eight points (4-4) in nine games since his Dec. 15 return after missing a month with a hand injury. "I think it definitely helps that my teammates are playing so well and it's easier to step into a lineup like that. It really brings you up."
Now that GM Steve Yzerman has added his goalie in Roloson and added depth on defense with power-play specialist Marc-Andre Bergeron (should he clear waivers), the last piece to fall into place for this team is for Lecavalier to play like the Lecavalier of old. If he can continue his current play, the Bolts can throw out two dangerous forward lines and take the pressure off Steven Stamkos to be superman every night on the top line. On Tuesday night, the Bolts would not have won without Lecavalier taking charge.
He's only 30, but four years removed from a career-high 108-point campaign in 2006-07 that had many of us believing he was one of the very best centers in the world. Injuries and distractions from former owners talking about trading him, not to mention his team stinking out the joint for a few seasons, brought Lecavalier's play down a peg.
He's in the second season of an 11-year, $85 million deal, which comes with a $7.72 million cap hit and a salary that's $10 million a year through 2015-16. Lecavalier seems hungry to earn that salary now.
"I just think we have a really good thing going on here," Lecavalier said. "The last three years were really tough. I wasn't happy at the end of last year. You're never happy when things don't go well and you're not winning. So of course I want to prove myself. I know I can help this team and I've been trying to do that."
On Tuesday night, Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher reunited Lecavalier with old pal Martin St. Louis on a line with Simon Gagne midway through second period. St. Louis has been Stamkos' linemate almost exclusively for almost three seasons, but Boucher switched things up and the Lecavalier/St. Louis connection meshed like it was 2003-04.
"I had barely played at all with him this year, but he put us back together in the second period," said Lecavalier. "You never lose it. Right from the first shift, we knew where each other was on the ice. It's like riding a bike when you play with Marty. We were clicking and we're still clicking. If I have an opportunity to play with him again, I would love that."
Interesting to hear the talk about the rising Lightning entering this week. A big test Tuesday at Washington (passed), and another one Wednesday in Pittsburgh. For Lecavalier and St. Louis, they went through all this in their younger years as the Bolts rose up the ranks to become Stanley Cup champions in 2004. Now, they're re-living the trip of a rebuilt team on the rise.
"It's a totally different team," said Lecavalier, distancing this team from the 2004 club. "But you can see the camaraderie that we have here. I've never had a team where everyone gets along so well. It's just a lot of fun. We had three miserable years, finishing last or second-to-last, now it's just so much fun. We don't want to get ahead of ourselves. We have to stay on an even keel here. We have to keep playing the way we can, and if we do, I believe we can have a lot of success."
Bring on the Pens.