Martin St. Louis leads the playoffs in scoring. Nikolai Khabibulin has played like a franchise goaltender. And Dave Andreychuk has stolen the hearts of fans everywhere as the sentimental favorite.
But the Tampa Bay Lightning's centerpiece player is still Vincent Lecavalier, its young and talented -- yet enigmatic -- center. In this postseason, he finally is beginning to live up to the hype that's followed him since then-team owner Art Williams declared him the Michael Jordan of hockey upon selecting him first overall in 1998.
"He's dominated games," Andreychuk said of Lecavalier, whose inspired performance Thursday keyed the Lightning's 4-1 victory and tied the Stanley Cup finals at 1-1. "Vinny has been a dominant force in a lot of our games. That's the reason we're the number one seed, because of him. His maturity level, realizing what the business of hockey is about, what he has to do, how he gets prepared every night. That's what's changed since I've been here. . . . He's realized what he can do in this league. He's taken that next step."
On Saturday, Lecavalier and his teammates face one of the NHL's most passionate crowds at the Pengrowth Saddledome, where the Calgary Flames will be waiting. The Lightning has never lost a Game 3 (6-0 all time).
The extent of Lecavalier's maturation in these playoffs was never more evident than on Thursday. He made his presence felt with heavy body checks along the boards. He back-checked on every shift. He threw himself in front of shots. And, perhaps most important, Lecavalier set up two goals, the first of which was absolutely magical and is certain to be remembered in Tampa for a long time.
"It's been going well," Lecavalier, 24, said Friday. "I don't know what to compare it to. It's only my second time in the playoffs. But I feel good, I'm having fun. I'm playing every game like it's my last. Like every game is so important."
After being held pointless by the New York Islanders in the opening round, Lecavalier has elevated his level of play in each series. He was the Lightning's best player in the second round against Montreal, when he tallied five goals and two assists in the Lightning's sweep of his hometown team. Lecavalier followed that performance by scoring four goals in a grueling, seven-game victory over Philadelphia.
None of that, however, compared with the move Lecavalier made in the first period Thursday. Displaying the offensive savvy and creativity that makes him one of the game's most exciting players, he threw the puck off the back of the cage, spun 360 degrees and regained control, leaving Calgary's Stephane Yelle grasping at air. Lecavalier passed to Jassen Cullimore, whose shot was stopped by Flames goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff. Ruslan Fedotenko banged in the rebound to put the Lightning ahead 1-0.
Lecavalier's flair on the ice is matched only by his flamboyance off it. Lecavalier drives a Ferrari, wears the most expensive and up-to-the-moment clothes and collects art. But he's only recently learned his true value will be measured by his play and leadership.
"You look at him maturing, trying to show his team, 'Follow me,' " Lightning Coach John Tortorella said. "The moves, that's talent. That's a talent level. But the presence he showed [Thursday] was very important for our club."
It's about time, according to those within the organization. When Tortorella took over midway though the 2000-01 season, the two feuded often. It got so bad former general manager Rick Dudley considered trading Lecavalier, which ultimately led to Dudley's demise. When Jay Feaster replaced Dudley later that year, Feaster vowed not to trade Lecavalier, saying he didn't want to be remembered as the GM who traded him.
Feaster's patience is starting to pay off. Although Tortorella and Lecavalier had a setback in December -- they traded barbs through the media, but quickly put the episode behind them -- the word "future" may no longer precede "star" when Lecavalier's name is mentioned, especially if he continues to play the way he has recently.
"[My] level of play has to be higher and higher with each series we go," Lecavalier said. "It's a great opportunity for all of us."