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Tampa Bay Lightning can take playoff heart from last season's Washington Capitals

They were woeful from the outset. So woeful their coach was fired by mid November. They didn't earn their 30th point until the 36th game of the season.

But they won 28 of their final 46 games (including 11 of their last 12) and made the playoffs.

Recollections of the last season's Capitals should seem familiar, and be a comfort, to the Lightning as it returns to the Verizon Center to take on Washington tonight.

The point to be taken from it: The Lightning's season isn't necessarily over.

"I don't think there's any question that there's similarities between the (Capitals) last year and (the Lightning) this year," said backup goaltender Olie Kolzig, a Capital last season. "We've got the talent. We've got the goaltender (Mike Smith). And so the thing is, we need to go on a run like Washington did."

The Capitals fired coach Glen Hanlon after starting 6-14-1 last season. The Lightning dismissed Barry Melrose after a 5-7-4 start.

The Lightning is 10-16-10, good for 30 points. The Capitals were 13-19-4, good for 30 points, after the same number of games.

The Capitals went on their season-ending tear to edge Carolina by two points to win the Southeast Division.

"The run we made at the end of the year there, I don't know if that can be duplicated," Kolzig said, "but if we can win three out of every four, four out of every five the rest of the way, I think we will slowly but surely get back into it. That's kind of the hole we dug ourselves. It's just we have to be committed to doing it every day."

The Lightning players, many of whom cite a lack of structure under Melrose, appear to finally be forming a cohesive group after a bevy of roster moves has eliminated or scared those whom interim coach Rick Tocchet called "passengers."

Cohesion has been trickier than it was for the Capitals because Tocchet, like much of the Lightning roster, was brought in from outside the organization before the season. Washington replaced Hanlon with minor-league coach Bruce Boudreau, whose personality and tactics were familiar to much of the roster.

And even with improvement and seven points and three wins in its past four games, Tocchet said the Lightning still demands an overbearing hand.

"We've learned as a coaching staff: win a game, keep a thumb on them still," he said. "The next day in practice we're still on top barking and making sure of things. Sometimes with coaching, teams play well and you lay off a little bit, but I think this team here, you have to stay on top of them. That's the way it has to be until it's different."

The Capitals have some of the best young talent in the NHL with Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, but the Lightning's core of Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis is a proven commodity also. With tangible results to show for the approach, and a tiny foothold established, Lightning players seem enthused about making something of the season.

"It's almost 50 games left," forward Vinny Prospal said. "Look what Washington did last year. The season doesn't have to be over."

Tampa Bay Lightning can take playoff heart from last season's Washington Capitals 12/31/08 [Last modified: Thursday, January 1, 2009 11:51pm]
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