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Streaking Tampa Bay Lightning showing depth problems may be in past

TAMPA — You plot. You scheme. You spend an offseason making moves, and imagining the results.

And then the goaltender you signed has a save percentage that doesn't even register among the league's top 30. And the brittle scorer you acquired in a trade has been out of the lineup for a month, and has yet to put a single puck in the net. And the franchise icon has spent the past two weeks riding a stationary bike with a cast on his hand.

"All part of the plan," Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said Wednesday night.

Yzerman, of course, is teasing. You can do that when your team is 13-7-2 and has set a franchise record for victories in the first 22 games of a season.

For this may be the most remarkable part of what is becoming an unlikely story. The Lightning has reversed three years of disappointment with numbers that defy common sense.

The Lightning is winning with Brett Clark and Dominic Moore scoring more goals than Vinny Lecavalier. It is winning with Sean Bergenheim, Adam Hall and Nate Thompson scoring more goals than Simon Gagne. It is winning with a second line that came out of nowhere, and a third line that sneaked in afterward.

Well, all of that and Steven Stamkos.

Because, let's face it, the Lightning is a wreck without either Stamkos or Marty St. Louis. They are the heart, the soul and about 40 percent of the offense in Tampa Bay.

But unlike so many seasons in recent memory, a top-heavy offense has not been the Lightning's undoing. The second and third lines are nowhere near league average for scoring contributions, but they have produced when needed.

They have, hard as it is to believe, absorbed the losses of Gagne and Lecavalier.

"I've said it from the beginning, I love adversity because it makes you stronger, it makes you better," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "Because our guys on the fourth line are on the third line right now, and our third-line guys are our second-line guys. They get more ice time, more practice time in different situations. So, what we're seeing right now is these guys are getting better every game."

Gagne has missed 16 games. Lecavalier has missed eight. The top two lines have been intact for only five of 22 games.

Yet the Lightning has not crumbled in their absence. There were a couple of games this month — in Pittsburgh and against Minnesota — when Tampa Bay was blown away after Lecavalier initially broke his hand. But the Lightning regrouped. Lines were shifted, players were moved around on special teams and a comfort level was discovered.

The Lightning has now won five consecutive games since the Minnesota loss.

"What we've shown is everyone is capable of stepping up their game. They've played their own game but they've taken it up a notch. We're playing a solid team game," Moore said. "The last (few) games, especially, you've seen that. You've seen five-on-five goals, everybody playing a pretty tight defense, and that's going to bode well for us when we have everyone back."

Stamkos has scored 30 percent of Tampa Bay's goals. By itself, that's amazing. In a larger sense, it's not very healthy.

No team in the NHL relies so much on one player for its offense. Not Pittsburgh with Sidney Crosby. And not Washington with either Alex Ovechkin or Alexander Semin.

If you want to put it in a historical context, Wayne Gretzky had only 22 percent of Edmonton's goals when he scored an NHL-record 92 in one season. Phil Esposito had 19 percent of Boston's goals when he scored a career-high 76. It's practically unheard of for one skater to have his name next to one out of every three goals on a stat sheet.

So, odds are, the Lightning cannot count on this trend continuing. Even if Stamkos remains on a torrid pace, he's going to need more help. Quite a bit more help.

The thing is, you get the sense that it could happen. That Bergenheim or Teddy Purcell or Moore or Thompson or Dana Tyrell will be there when it matters. You are almost starting to believe the depth problems of recent years are over.

"Marty and Steve … have at times carried us in the offensive part of the game. Can it continue? It might, but it's been good to have some of our other guys get quality ice time," Yzerman said. "They've all chipped in. They're not just surviving out there, they're all contributing and they're making a difference.

"It's not every night, but every three or four games someone will chip in with an important goal. It's made the difference in a couple of wins for us. It's the difference between being (13-7-2) vs. being .500. You need depth. You need all your lines because there's too much hockey to be played in a season."

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Streaking Tampa Bay Lightning showing depth problems may be in past 11/24/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 24, 2010 10:26pm]
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