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Nine points out of playoff spot, Tampa Bay Lightning players believe a postseason place is realistic

Goalie Mike Smith is a big reason the Lightning isn’t in a deeper hole in the standings.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Goalie Mike Smith is a big reason the Lightning isn’t in a deeper hole in the standings.

TAMPA — Among the handful of Lightning players queried Monday, no one said it was crazy to believe they could make the playoffs.

On the other hand, what else were they going to say?

"If we didn't believe it," forward Ryan Craig said, "I don't think we'd be professionals."

Still, with a 9-5-1 streak and victories in five of seven games, Tampa Bay has forced the league to take notice. And only nine points behind the Hurricanes for the East's final playoff spot, it has given itself, besides pride, something for which to compete.

"We've gotten ourselves into the conversation," Craig said. "Now, we have to get ourselves into the top eight."

It has been a notable turnaround for a franchise that for a time this season was the league's worst offensively, had trouble holding teams to fewer than 30 shots and, if not for goaltender Mike Smith, would have been in a hole so deep, this conversation would not be taking place.

Things aren't perfect. Teams still pin Tampa Bay in its end for extended periods, the defense needs upgrades, secondary scoring still surprises when it shows up, and seven home victories are a league low.

But coach Rick Tocchet and staff have gotten the players to buy into a "play as five" system. Preparation is better, and perhaps most important, the team is playing with confidence.

Can it win enough to get to the postseason?

"It's realistic," captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "Nine points is a lot, but if we keep playing the way we have, keep pushing and taking it game by game, then you never know what can happen."

The task is daunting.

Consider: If the Hurricanes, eighth in the East with 51 points, go just 17-17 in their final 34 games, they will have 85 points. The Lightning, 12th with 42 points, would have to go 22-13 in its final 35 games to reach 86.

It likely will have to do even better because of what the teams between Carolina and Tampa Bay might do.

"The thing the players have to understand," Tocchet said, "is that in the second half, everybody pushes harder."

A good start is a 3-1 mark in a stretch of 17 games of which 13 are at the St. Pete Times Forum, including tonight against the Canadiens. And remember that the Capitals last season won 11 of their final 12, including the last seven, to overcome a seven-point deficit to Carolina and win the Southeast.

The key is minigoals, Tocchet said: breaking the schedule into five-game segments, or even two- and three-game segments, and trying to win those.

Better yet, Tocchet said, "the first period against Montreal."

Bigger picture, "we're doing a lot of teaching and doing a lot of video and practices at a high tempo, pushing and pushing guys," Tocchet said. "We got off to such a bad start … you can't let your foot off the gas pedal."

"This is what hockey is all about," Smith said, "making a push for the playoffs and guys elevating their games to new levels. If everybody does that and worries about themselves and gives a great effort, I think you'll see us there in the end."

What else was he going to say?

Nine points out of playoff spot, Tampa Bay Lightning players believe a postseason place is realistic 01/26/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 27, 2009 12:26am]
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