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Lightning tests get tougher

TAMPA — Right wing Marty St. Louis really likes the way the Lightning has played during its 5-1-0 start.

But he's not fooling himself, either, about the competition the team has faced.

"Listen, we're aware we played Philly with their backup goalie and them coming off a back-to-back (set of games)," St. Louis said. "We played Ottawa with them coming off a back-to-back and facing a backup goalie. But those are breaks you get in a schedule, and we have to take advantage, and we have."

There is something to be said for beating teams you should beat and abusing backup goalies. But it may not be a true indicator of how good a team is or can be.

For the Lightning, that opportunity starts tonight against the Jets at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the first game in a stretch of six in which Tampa Bay will be tested by tough opponents, good goaltenders and, at times, hostile crowds.

"A great measuring stick, or however you want to call it," center Nate Thompson said.

On Saturday, the Rangers are in town with last season's Vezina Trophy winner, Henrik Lundqvist, likely in net.

Tampa Bay then plays on the road against the Flyers, Devils, Bruins and Rangers.

In each game, the opponent does not play the day before. That means all will be well-rested and their top goalies available: the Flyers' Ilya Bryzgalov, the Devils' Marty Brodeur, the Bruins' Tuukka Rask and Lundqvist again.

That's quite a difference from Ottawa's Ben Bishop, Philadelphia's Michael Leighton and Florida's Jose Theodore, Tampa Bay's past three victims, who entered Thursday with a combined — and poor — .882 save percentage.

The Lightning also plays back-to-back in Boston and New York.

With all that on the horizon, tonight against Southeast Division rival Winnipeg, playing the second of back-to-back games, is almost a must two points.

"We just have to focus on one game at a time," center Vinny Lecavalier said. "We can't start thinking about Lundqvist and the Rangers. Focus on the Jets and hopefully we play the same way we have the last six games."

The Lightning, winner of four straight, has been splendid in many ways. It entered Thursday with a league-best 29 goals. Its power play was fourth in the league at 30 percent, and the penalty kill was seventh at 86.7 percent and has succeeded in 13 straight man-down situations.

The goaltending is better, and the defense, faster and more experienced, sparks the offense.

"We're not spending 30 seconds in our end, a minute, chasing and getting tired," Lecavalier said. "We're getting it out of our zone as quick as we can."

And coach Guy Boucher pointed out his team did all that Jan. 22 in a 5-1 win at Carolina in the second game of a home-road back-to-back and against Cam Ward, the Hurricanes' top goalie.

Still, evaluations are tough when other goalies the team has faced looked like Swiss cheese.

"You're right, it will get tougher," Boucher said. "We'll get quality opponents and get them on the road.

"We don't care who we're playing. It's about us. That's our approach."

And, so far, their success.

SCARY MOMENT: Defenseman Brendan Mikkelson was taken to Tampa General Hospital on Thursday for tests after crashing into the end boards during a practice drill.

Mikkelson appeared to hit the back of his head and stayed down for several minutes while being helped by head athletic trainer Tommy Mulligan and assistant trainer Mike Poirier.

Mikkelson, 25, scratched in five of six games, skated slowly off the ice under his own power. He is day-to-day with an unspecified upper-body injury.

"He was lucid. He was talking," Boucher said. "There was no hit or anything. Maybe he hit a crack in the ice. He went plunging. Not a good sight."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@tampabay.com. His blog is at lightning.tampabay.com.

Lightning tests get tougher 01/31/13 [Last modified: Thursday, January 31, 2013 11:25pm]

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