- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 4, 2003

TAMPA, Fla. There have been times this late in a season when a game between Washington and Tampa Bay had some meaning but not to the Lightning.
After all, this is a franchise that made the postseason only once in its existence and hasn't come close to a second appearance. This is a franchise that once played its home games in a cavernous baseball dome built to lure a prospective tenant.
Of course, Tampa Bay has given some meaning to its games in the second half this season. With 55 points, the Lightning are just three points out of first in the Southeast Division, and the team in front of them, the Capitals, will come to St. Pete Times Forum tonight. Washington will still be ahead after tonight's game, but Tampa Bay could seize the momentum.
In the past, there have been some close, clutch games between the teams, but usually the Caps were trying to solidify playoff position while the Lightning were trying to look good for the next season.
"Honestly, has Tampa Bay ever been in any of those clutch games at this time of the year?" Caps coach Bruce Cassidy asked yesterday. "They're in a stretch run right now where this should be a lot of fun for them. The guys who have been in that dressing room for a lot of years, I don't know how important games have been in February. I think it will be a real emotional game.
"They're actually a team that's involved in the mix, whereas before they were probably not swimming, they were sinking. I got to believe they'll be fired up."
Both teams are on solid runs in their last six games Tampa Bay is 4-1-1 and Washington 3-1-2 but the Caps have had their way with the Lightning for the past four years, going 15-2-1. Tampa Bay has improved slowly but steadily, and the moves made by former general manager Rick Dudley (now with the Florida Panthers) are paying off, especially the trade that landed goalie Nikolai Khabibulin.
"We're in the hunt," Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella said yesterday, "and we want to stay in the hunt. This is the first week of February, and we haven't been here. A lot of these players haven't been in this situation before. So you can't be afraid of it. You've got to take it as a tremendous, tremendous opportunity, accept the challenge and see where we go."
The Lightning have been in the hunt all season, losing only one of their first 10 and owning a record of 11-4-2-1 midway through November. They completed a stretch just before the three-day All-Star break that many felt would break them Ottawa and Montreal at home, then Dallas, Nashville and Philadelphia on the road. The Lightning tied the Canadiens and blew a two-goal lead in a loss at Nashville but won the rest.
"Every game is a test for us," Tortorella said. "I don't think as an organization we have handled consistency well in the three years that I've been here. I think this is a great challenge for us to see how we can just stay as businessmen with a business outlook and just approach every day prepared. Because you can't let up, you can't let off the pedal. You let off the pedal now with 30 games left, and other teams are just jacking it up from there and you fall by the wayside.
"It comes down to mental toughness. This isn't physical. This isn't X's and O's. We know how to play. We know the style we want to play. It's a matter of being willing to do it."
The Caps have eight more games against division foes, including one more against the Lightning on Feb.17 in Tampa.

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