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Tampa Bay Lightning returns home in good shape

VANCOUVER — The end of the Lightning's long and winding road meant several things to wing Marty St. Louis. But with the holidays approaching, one stood out:

"It will be nice," he said, "to feel like you have a family again."

Players have felt more like vagabonds. But with Saturday's 5-4 overtime victory over the Canucks at Rogers Arena, Tampa Bay finished, finally, a sojourn of 15 of 21 games on the road.

That it went 10-8-3, including a respectable 6-7-2 on the road, should make players feel good.

The Lightning (16-10-4) already has played 19 of 41 road games, the most of any NHL team. That means 30 of its last 52 games are at home.

"And at home," center Steven Stamkos said, "we are tough to beat."

Tampa Bay is 7-2-2 at the St. Pete Times Forum, but just as notable is its 9-8-2 road record. Given the demanding schedule, coach Guy Boucher called it a "huge accomplishment" done with injuries to left wing Simon Gagne, center Vinny Lecavalier and right wing Steve Downie (the latter two are ongoing) preventing the top two lines from being intact since Oct. 21.

That forces all forwards to play more, but especially St. Louis, 35, who averages 21:38 and has played more than 20 minutes in 18 of his past 19 games, and Stamkos, averaging 20:55.

"Our plan was just to survive," Boucher said, "be at .500 and still be in the running. The players showed they have tremendous character."

"We never used our schedule as an excuse," defenseman Mattias Ohlund said. "We battled hard and gave ourselves a chance to win."

Tampa Bay, whose 11 games played at home are tied with Florida for the league's fewest, now has a chance to flourish. And not just because the schedule gets friendly, including 12 straight at home from Jan. 23 through Feb. 25.

Players can rest and recover from injuries without worrying about catching a plane and recapture a sense of normalcy by reconnecting with families.

It also is good for Boucher, who can hold regular practices; tough to do while accommodating games and travel.

"Even when you practice on the road, (opposing) coaches are in the stands, so we haven't been able to practice any special things," Boucher said. "When we did, they took notes, and you can see they were ready for them."

That is why Tampa Bay's first-ever win in Vancouver (1-8-1 with two ties) was so interesting.

At a pregame meeting, Boucher sketched a few ideas to help Stamkos, without a power-play goal in 10 games, get more room on the ice. It paid off as his winning goal, four-on-three and 34 seconds into overtime, was on a one-timer from the top of the slot instead of his usual spot at the left faceoff circle, an area that has become crowded with defenders.

Stamkos, with a team-best 24 goals, helped himself five-on-five, going to the net when Mike Lundin's shot deflected off him and in. It was his first multipoint game since Nov. 24.

Stamkos also bailed out Dan Ellis, who allowed a bad goal on Keith Ballard's shot from above the left faceoff circle that tied the score 4-4 with 5:47 left in a third period in which Tampa Bay lost a 4-2 lead and was outshot 11-3.

"Everyone can say it doesn't affect you, but physically and mentally it's tough," Stamkos said of the schedule. "We fought through it, and it's huge."

Move: Center Marc-Antoine Poulliet was sent down to AHL Norfolk.

Tampa Bay Lightning returns home in good shape 12/12/10 [Last modified: Sunday, December 12, 2010 8:38pm]
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