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Tampa Bay Lightning sees playoffs as an achievable goal

BRANDON — There is a line in the NHL playoffs standings that separates the teams that would be in the postseason if they began that day from those that would be out.

Lightning coach Rick Tocchet calls it "the line of death."

Rise above it by season's end, you live to play another day. Fall below it, you're done.

But 41 games into an 82-game schedule, the line is less ominous, Tocchet said: "You kind of look at it as a barometer of where you're at."

For Tampa Bay, that place is disappointing and hopeful.

Disappointing because a 16-15-10 record, largely, has been self inflicted. Hopeful because the team, which begins its second half Wednesday at Buffalo, is just four points out of a playoff spot.

"It's in everybody's mind and it's something that's brought up all the time," defenseman Matt Smaby said Monday at the Ice Sports Forum.

"Everyone around here knows how we have done the last two years (last and next to last in the league, respectively). It's just an awful feeling, and it's kind of driving us to get better and make a push for the postseason."

Making it easier: aside from the Devils, Sabres, Capitals and Penguins, the East is about parity.

Making it tougher: Tampa Bay's inability to put together a significant winning streak. The team is 5-1-1 in its past seven games but has yet to win three straight this season.

Tocchet said it is about mindset: the willingness to do little things such as creating a forecheck, battling for pucks and not leaving the defensive zone early, all of which was on display during Saturday's 3-1 victory over the Stanley Cup champion Penguins but has been difficult to maintain game-to-game.

"As a team and individuals, we have to challenge ourselves to play consistently unselfish hockey, even though it's hard," he said. "We get in situations where we play three or four good games and we go through stretches we try to make it easier on ourselves.

"It's time now. We can't digress in that. We have to stay on top of that stuff. You have a bad three weeks, you can be done."

Left wing Ryan Malone said perhaps splitting the season into segments — 20 games before February's Olympic break and 21 after — will help maintain focus.

"The 23 guys in this room, if we want it bad enough, we're going to be in the playoffs," he said. "It's going to be a fun run here coming up."

What the Lightning cannot afford are games like the 5-2 loss to the Flyers on Dec. 23, when Philadelphia scored three third-period goals to end Tampa Bay's two-game winning streak.

"We're 2-2 in the third and still can't find the energy to come out and put together a solid 20 (minutes)," Malone said. "That was kind of frightening. So, it was great to bounce back with a great effort against Pittsburgh. We just have to play with that constant effort every night."

As captain Vinny Lecavalier said, "We beat a good team in Pittsburgh, but if we don't win our next game that won't count for anything. You have to make those games count."

It's a fine line.

SMITH IS NO. 2 STAR: Mike Smith was the NHL's second star for the week ending Sunday. The goalie was 2-0-1 with a 1.31 goals-against average and a .957 save percentage. The Devils' Jamie Langenbrunner, with five goals in four games, was first.

INJURY REPORT: Defenseman Matt Walker said he is "100 percent" recovered from his lower-body injury. But with Tocchet happy with how the team is playing, Walker, out six games, has to "wait his turn." … Left wing Alex Tanguay missed practice with an intestinal disorder, the team said. … Center Jeff Halpern (lower body) skated half of practice, and left wing Todd Fedoruk (knee) had off-ice workouts.

Rangers edge Bruins

NEW YORK — Christopher Higgins' tiebreaking goal with 1:29 left rescued the Rangers, lifting them to a 3-2 victory over the Bruins and surpassing the Canadiens for seventh in the Eastern Conference, both with 45 points. The Lightning has 42.

The Rangers appeared to be cruising when Boston struck for two goals 1:26 apart. Then Higgins sneaked his fifth of the season past goalie Tuukka Rask.

Higgins was the third unlikely scorer for the Rangers. Erik Christensen got his second in three games and Ales Kotalik had his first goal in two months.

The goal will get Higgins some relief from his family.

"It's mostly my two younger brothers who have given me the most flak," Higgins said. "My old man doesn't tell me how to play anymore. Even the 14-year-old has a mouth on him. This is probably the second game of the year that no one's come. It figures."

Boston trailed 2-0 when Zdeno Chara went to the penalty box, the Rangers' fifth power play. But Matt Hunwick scored shorthanded, then assisted on Blake Wheeler's shot that tied it.

at Rangers 1 1 1 3
Bruins 0 0 2 2
at Rangers 1 1 1 3
Bruins 0 0 2 2

First Period1, N.Y. Rangers, Kotalik 7 (Dubinsky, Callahan), 9:58 (pp). PenaltiesPaille, Bos (tripping), 3:13; Sobotka, Bos (holding), 7:31; Wideman, Bos (hooking), 8:23; Sobotka, Bos (hooking), 9:58; New York bench, served by Avery (too many men), 17:30.

Second Period2, N.Y. Rangers, Christensen 2 (Dubinsky, Del Zotto), 7:34. PenaltiesGaborik, NYR (delay of game), 14:26.

Third Period3, Boston, Hunwick 5 (Wheeler, Krejci), 14:33 (sh). 4, Boston, Wheeler 8 (Ryder, Hunwick), 15:59. 5, N.Y. Rangers, Higgins 5 (Drury, Callahan), 18:31. PenaltiesRozsival, NYR (tripping), 3:57; Chara, Bos (interference), 13:28. Shots on GoalBoston 12-11-5—28. N.Y. Rangers 9-17-9—35. Power-play opportunitiesBoston 0 of 3; N.Y. Rangers 1 of 5. GoaliesBoston, Rask 10-4-2 (35 shots-32 saves). N.Y. Rangers, Lundqvist 18-14-5 (28-26). A18,200 (18,200). T2:24.

Information from Times wires was used in this report. Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Lightning sees playoffs as an achievable goal 01/04/10 [Last modified: Monday, January 4, 2010 11:02pm]

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