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Tampa Bay Lightning no longer a lightweight

TAMPA — It takes concentration to play this game. It takes a certain focus to survive in this league.

And so it is no wonder that on the night the Lightning finished off the best first half of a season in franchise history, players had no problem tuning out the crazy man walking through the locker room shouting about gyms and workouts and pushing harder.

Maybe they were able to ignore coach Guy Boucher because his postgame rant sounded like a joke.

Or, better yet, maybe it was because they already understood it wasn't.

For a franchise that has changed owners, management, coaches, players and its spot in the standings in recent months, this might be the most notable change of all. You see, by the time Tampa Bay reached the All-Star break Tuesday night, it had already changed expectations.

This story is no longer just about a turnaround. It is no longer a cute tale about a wayward franchise trying to keep up with the big boys. For the Lightning has already made it around the corner and, strange as it seems, appears to be picking up speed.

"With every win," defenseman Mike Lundin said, "we're going to have some more believers out there."

For the record, Tuesday night's 2-0 victory against Toronto was the fifth in a row for these Lightning players, and the pace seems perfectly natural. They're healthier. They've grown more comfortable in Boucher's system. And now they have a proven goaltender.

The All-Star break has arrived, and the Lightning is second in the Eastern Conference. Maybe you think serious Stanley Cup contenders don't arrive until the other side of the All-Star Game, but that's not necessarily the reality of the NHL.

In the past 10 seasons, the East team that has been in second place at the All-Star break or Olympic break has gone on to be the first or second seed eight times. The other two times it was the third and fourth seed.

In other words, this team has skated past fluke and is bearing down on dangerous.

"Everything we've gotten up to now," Boucher said, "we've gotten because we've worked hard."

Granted, the Lightning began the season like a team in search of Ritalin. Tampa Bay was up and down, here and there, and racing toward heaven knows where. From one night to the next, you never knew if you were getting a team on the rise or a team in reverse.

Yet gradually, almost imperceptibly, the Lightning has grown more steady. More dependable. More trustworthy.

Maybe it began when Simon Gagne found his way back to the lineup in late November. Or maybe when Dwayne Roloson was acquired in early January and Steve Downie put down his crutches a few days later.

Truth be known, that single season-defining moment probably does not exist.

On the other hand, the return of Vinny Lecavalier on Dec. 15 might one day make a nice opening chapter in the story of a memorable season.

The Lightning was 16-10-4 through the first 30 games with Lecavalier out of the lineup for more than half that time. The offense was streaky, and the defense was haphazard. Tampa Bay gave up three or more goals in 22 of those first 30 games.

Yet since Lecavalier's return, the team has gone 15-5-1. And the Lightning has given up three or more goals in only six of 21 games.

"The focus of the third period wasn't to get a third goal to bury them. It was actually to play a tight game," Boucher said. "That's been the focus of our team for the last five games. When we had our 12-game stretch when we were doing so well, it was all about giving the least amount of goals possible. We said a maximum per game of two. And in the last five games, it's been 2, 2, 1, 1 and 0.

"I think that's the secret of our success. Whenever we try to run-and-gun, we're horrible."

Actually, the Lightning is playing the type of games you often see in the postseason. Low-scoring hockey. Tight hockey. Dramatic hockey. Best of all, winning hockey.

At one point, the Lightning was 5-2-3 in one-goal games and lost its first two shootouts of the season. Tampa Bay has since gone 12-1-2 in one-goal games and 5-0 in shootouts.

Tampa Bay leads the NHL with 11 overtime victories, which you can look at a couple of ways. You can either worry the Lightning is getting more than its share of luck, or you can revel in a team that knows what it takes to put a game away.

"We want to play high paced but within our structure. If we're high paced and all over the place, that's going to cost us. And if we slow down, that's going to cost us," Lundin said. "I think we've finally gotten to the point where we're able to play that high-paced game and still stay within our structure. And you're seeing the results."

The Lightning is not without flaws. There are still some depth issues. There are occasional problems with focus.

This is not, Boucher has said, a powerhouse on the ice.

Yet the Lightning is a much better team today.

And seemingly getting better by the day.

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

Tampa Bay Lightning no longer a lightweight 01/25/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 26, 2011 12:30am]

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