TAMPA, Fla. — A playground bully was popped in the teeth.
A familiar nemesis, one that had decked and dropped the Tampa Bay Lightning into the loss column 10 consecutive times before Sunday, was given a taste of its own vicious poison.
A foe that had bedeviled the Lightning, one that could serve as a roadblock in the Stanley Cup Playoffs ahead, was exorcised and pulverized by the second period’s end, with the final 20 minutes serving as a sweet victory lap in a 5-3 rout over those despised Boston Bruins at Amalie Arena.
"We can feel like we can win any game," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after the deed was done. "We may not win every game, but we feel like we can."
They should feel like they can win just about anything after this. What about that 10-game losing streak to the Bruins? It was snapped and crushed, stomped and burned.
Sayonara. It’s history.
"Before the game," Lightning center Steven Stamkos said, "we had that silent confidence."
The silent confidence became a crack of thunder midway through the first period, when Stamkos jumped Bruins center Brad Marchand and looked like a deranged lion tackling a Gazelle. Fifty-seven seconds later, the Lightning turned a 1-all tie into a two-goal cushion, thanks to scores from winger J.T. Brown and defenseman Anton Stralman.
The rest was icing. Defenseman Jason Garrison and winger Ondrej Palat added goals in the second and third periods, but the Bruins lost their bite long before then. With less than five minutes left, some starved fans in the top rows began chanting, "Na na na naaaa, hey hey, goodbye!" Others screamed, "This is our house!" Even the video board operators had some fun by mocking Bruins fans who streamed for the exits.
All this was revealing of pent-up frustration. All this was a long time coming.
Tampa Bay had served as Boston’s chew toy since the Lightning’s last victory in the series, on March 13, 2012. Tampa Bay has gone through so much change since then — Guy Boucher’s firing and Cooper’s hiring, Vinny Lecavalier’s departure and Marty St. Louis being tapped as captain, St. Louis’ trade to the New York Rangers and Stamkos’ entry into a different phase of his career as part of the new Lightning — but the Bruins’ mastery had stayed constant through it all.
So the occasion Sunday was more than a flip of the script. Tampa Bay flat-out rewrote the freaking thing. Vaunted goaltender Tuukka Rask was pulled in the second period after allowing four goals. The big, bad Bruins, known for their bruising style, were punched back more often, with the Lightning’s captain serving as the meanest brass knuckles of all.
"The whole building got going really well," Stralman said of the reaction after Stamkos’ fight. "After that, our game really took off.
"It seems like I’ve been with a few teams, and it’s always one team that has some kind of winning streak on you, and it’s always nice to break them. Obviously, it feels good."
There will be time to look forward in the coming weeks, but Sunday’s story was about what was left behind. This was a key step for a young team trying to reinvent itself on the fly, for a group attempting to shed the dreaded "finesse" label and show that it can swing elbows with the most physical teams that the NHL can offer.
Mission accomplished on Sunday.
Before this season, and even throughout a majority of the current campaign, there were legitimate doubts that Tampa Bay could do so. Now, it’s a different story.
It’s too early to tell if the Lightning will continue a biting brand of play in the postseason, but they should enter with no fear. Cooper called the men under him "team tough," and that tag seems appropriate for a group that has clawed within two points of the Montreal Canadiens for the Atlantic Division lead.
Beating the Bruins was a mental hurdle for the Lightning to overcome in a chase for postseason positioning, but the physical prowess displayed in the blowout was the most impressive development. Topping Boston was good for their mind, but bludgeoning a rival on the ice was best for their soul.
"We may not have the toughest, biggest strongest team," Stamkos said, "but we have guys who compete, and we have some guys who are willing to mix it up."
They did more than mix it up Sunday. They chased ghosts.
Ding, dong, the losing streak to the Bruins is gone, the torment drowned in the final horn that bellowed throughout the arena and in the piercing roar that flooded each crevice, an old source of frustration vanquished in the most satisfying and fulfilling of ways.