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Is it premature to call Tampa Bay Lightning a Stanley Cup contender?

Lightning right wing Marty St. Louis and recently acquired goalie Dwayne Roloson will be relied on for their experience.

Associated Press

Lightning right wing Marty St. Louis and recently acquired goalie Dwayne Roloson will be relied on for their experience.

Lightning coach Guy Boucher simply rolled his eyes.

The playoffs still are four months away, and someone was asking about the analysts who believe Tampa Bay might actually be a Stanley Cup contender.

"I don't want to know about it," Boucher said. "Once we start listening to how good we are, we're going to forget how far we are from where we want to be."

That said, Tampa Bay has forced itself into the conversation.

A year removed from being one of the league's most dysfunctional franchises, the Lightning is first in the Southeast Division and entered Monday second in the Eastern Conference. Had it beaten the lowly Devils on Sunday, it would have been tied for first.

And there is this: At 25-13-5, the Lightning has a better record and more points (55) after 43 games than any team in franchise history, including the winners of the 2004 Stanley Cup, who had 49.

"So, is it premature to say they are a Stanley Cup contender? I'm not so sure," former NHL executive Craig Button said.

"You have to say they have as good a chance as anybody of winning the East," said Scotty Morrison, an analyst for CBC's Hockey Night in Canada. "Once they get past that, who knows? So, yeah, they have a legitimate shot at it."

• • •

For Darren Eliot, an analyst for the Versus network and a former NHL goalie, the Lightning's chances took a huge leap Jan. 1, when general manager Steve Yzerman acquired Dwayne Roloson from the Islanders.

The goalie "knows the drill," Eliot said. He led the Oilers to the 2006 Stanley Cup final, and "what he did on Long Island," with outstanding play for a downtrodden franchise, "was amazing."

Roloson stole two wins in the three games he has played for Tampa Bay, a team already successful despite being outscored on the season.

But beyond that, Eliot said, "The unconventionality of the 1-3-1 (system) seems to frustrate offensive-minded teams. Their power play is prolific. They're not a one-line team, they have skill, and they've grown together."

Eliot wondered about Tampa Bay's depth but said, "They've moved up in my mind into that top-five group in the East."

"It's a great story," NBC analyst and former NHL coach Pierre McGuire said. "I had them as the most improved team in the league at the beginning of the year. But are they really ready to win the Cup? I think it's a bit premature to call that out, but once you're in, anything can happen."

So, let's assume the Lightning makes the playoffs for the first time in four years, something McGuire said should happen "barring major injuries."

The "imperative" to any playoff run, Button said, will be to win the Southeast to draw an easier first-round opponent.

"But if anybody thinks they're a sleeper, they're not paying attention," added Button, an analyst for the NHL Network. "They have dynamic scoring. They play really good defense. The special teams are really good, and I think with Dwayne Roloson in net, now it moves them up a notch."

• • •

Boucher, of course, didn't want to hear any of that, especially after Sunday's loss to the Devils that ended a 2-2 road trip he described as "average, yuck."

"One of our biggest assets has been the ability to focus on the present, keep it very small in terms of tight focus," the coach said. "April is so far away. We can get on a losing streak and lose 12 in a row. Washington was kicking butt and they were going to be first for sure (in the Southeast), and look at what we've got."

That is not just coach-speak. As Morrison said, "It's the test of time to stay where they are. They're not going to surprise anybody in the second half. People will be ready for them. It's going to be a tougher task. We'll see how they measure up."

That is where it helps having battle-tested players such as Marty St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier and Pavel Kubina, who all won the 2004 Cup with Tampa Bay, and Ryan Malone, who played in the 2008 final with the Penguins.

Devils coach Jacques Lemaire put in a good word for Boucher, his longtime friend.

"He cares about his players, and that is big," Lemaire said, "and he gets the guys to play together."

Can all this really add up to a Stanley Cup run?

"Let's put it this way," Morrison said, "they really have enhanced their chances of being a team you might not want to play come playoff time."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

Is it premature to call Tampa Bay Lightning a Stanley Cup contender? 01/10/11 [Last modified: Monday, January 10, 2011 10:23pm]
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