The Lightning's success last season was no mirage, said Pierre McGuire, an NBC analyst and former Whalers coach who sees Tampa Bay with "a real opportunity to create a lot of havoc in the Eastern Conference." Added former Penguins coach and current TV analyst Eddie Olczyk: "Their confidence has to be sky high. … From the forwards to the defense, I think they're rock solid." And so it goes for the Lightning, which in one year went from an afterthought in its market to a team worthy of national attention. You can understand the high expectations. Taking the eventual Stanley Cup champion Bruins to Game 7 of the East final created an impression the team is ready to take the next step. But coach Guy Boucher is too smart to be caught in a trap of diminishing returns. "Nobody is going to take me there," he said. "That's where you lose yourself. That's when you have the bad pressure we talk about. That's when the guys are focused on the result instead of the process. If we start looking at last year's results and feel we're at a different level in terms of (where we are) on paper, that is where we're going to get lost."
Is the Lightning better than it was last season? Can it be a serious Stanley Cup contender?
The latter is an interesting question, not only because Tampa Bay fell one goal short of the Cup final, losing Game 7 of the East final 1-0 — and considering the way the Canucks played against Boston for the Cup, Tampa Bay had a real shot if it got in — but because of how much this season's team resembles 2010-11's.
Think about it. There are questions at forward, where general manager Steve Yzerman admitted he did not find a replacement for free agent departure Simon Gagne.
There are questions about defensive depth, especially with Mattias Ohlund on injured reserve, and goaltending, specifically if Dwayne Roloson, the league's oldest player who turns 42 Wednesday, can hold up physically.
Tampa Bay isn't going to surprise anyone, either, which means the work-harder attitude that overcame many of last season's shortcomings (going 23-7 in one-goal games in regulation means you are working hard) and the discipline to play within Boucher's 1-3-1 trapping system will need to be in full effect.
"So, when people talk about playoffs, finishing first, the Stanley Cup, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa," Boucher said. "Let's make sure we focus on the process."
Let's break it down
This is the Lightning's Achilles' heel, most outsiders believe.
"Last year he played really well," NBC analyst and former Bruins coach Mike Milbury said of Dwayne Roloson, who after his January acquisition from the Islanders was 18-12-4 with four shutouts, a 2.56 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage that jumped to .924 in the playoffs.
"But you start to hit 42 and 43 (years old), you have questions. I have questions if Dwayne Roloson can play as well as he did. I always root for the old guys, but Father Time stops for no man."
Roloson, though, is in tremendous shape, and with Mathieu Garon, 33, a veteran backup slated for about 30 games, Roloson should be fresh enough for a playoff run.
"We'll manage Roloson," coach Guy Boucher said.
One thing is sure: Tampa Bay's goaltending headed into this season is in a lot better shape than it was entering 2010-11, when it began with Mike Smith and Dan Ellis.
With Mattias Ohlund (knee) on the shelf for tonight's opener with the Hurricanes at the RBC Center, and perhaps longer, the pressure is on. It's not so much on the top pairing of Victor Hedman and Eric Brewer, but on the pairings of Matt Gilroy and Brett Clark, and Pavel Kubina and Marc-Andre Bergeron, both of which will face opponents' second lines.
GM Steve Yzerman signed Gilroy and Bergeron for their speed. The question: Can they do the job defensively while playing expanded minutes? The Lightning, which basically swapped Mike Lundin and Randy Jones for Gilroy and Bruno Gervais, stressed team defense with a five-man pack mentality to help its blue-liners last season. It will do the same this season.
Steven Stamkos, Marty St. Louis, Ryan Malone, Teddy Purcell and Vinny Lecavalier remain. But with the losses of Simon Gagne and Sean Bergenheim to free agency, the Lightning is not as deep up front because it has no obvious replacement in the top six for Gagne.
"It's part of the game. You're not going to get everybody back," Lecavalier said. "But that just means everybody has to step up and make things work the way they did last year, or better."
Ryan Shannon, who had 12 goals in 2010-11 for the Senators, might match Gagne's 17. But rookie Brett Connolly, 19, impressive in camp, will face a different intensity in the regular season.
On the other hand, who saw Bergenheim (nine playoff goals) coming?
Give Yzerman this
The GM has assembled a team that meshes well off the ice. There does not seem to be cliques, something forward Ryan Shannon said he appreciated as a newcomer. That camaraderie served Tampa Bay well last season, when it took a massive step forward. Is it ready to take another?
"We need to be aware of who we are," coach Guy Boucher said. "The minute we work a little less than the other teams, we're going to lose."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow his coverage at lightning.tampabay.com and on Twitter at @LightningTimes.