ATLANTA — For Lightning coach Rick Tocchet, the defining moment of the preseason came in the final game at Atlanta.
At the end of a seven-day, five-game, 7,000-mile road trip, Tampa Bay not only crushed the Thrashers 5-1 on Sunday, it answered several physical challenges with a got-your-back attitude. What did that tell Tocchet?
"It tells me guys have had enough," he said. "I hate to use the word bull----, but they've had enough of everything. It's good to see."
And understandable after consecutive seasons in which the Lightning, respectively, finished 30th (last) and 29th (almost last) in the league.
The losing helped land prime draft choices Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, both projected for stardom. It also spurred the summer's major retooling that included an overhaul of the blue line and addition of scoring wing Alex Tanguay to play with Vinny Lecavalier.
That is why, headed into its 17th season, which starts tonight against the Thrashers at Philips Arena, the Lightning has created a little bit of a buzz.
Analysts have said if all breaks right, the team could sneak into the playoffs, and ESPN ranked it 10th in the league. That might be overreaching, but it seems closer to reality than the 27th overall ranking by Canada's TSN.
"No, I have no predictions," Tampa Bay general manager Brian Lawton said. "My only prediction is we'll be there (tonight) ready to have some fun and play hard all year long."
So what has some believing the Lightning has turned a corner? Here are 10 reasons for hope.
A better blue line
Adding veterans Mattias Ohlund, Matt Walker and Kurtis Foster not only creates stability on a defense that last season allowed the league's second-most shots, it accelerates the development of Hedman, 18, Paul Ranger, 24, and Andrej Meszaros, 23.
A better Vinny Lecavalier
Two summers ago, the captain rehabbed after right shoulder surgery. Last season, he played with a sore right wrist that also required surgery. Finally healthy and out from under trade rumors, Lecavalier is refocused. He would love to erase last season, in which his 29 goals were his fewest since 2001-02 and his 67 points his fewest since 2003-04.
"I just think he's mentally fresh and physically fresh," Tocchet said. "That's the most important talk we had this summer, to get away and get his body and mind fresh and come back and be the leader he can be."
The return of Mike Smith
The team's upgrades will mean nothing without top-notch goaltending, which is why it was so important for Smith, coming off post-concussion syndrome, to return to No. 1 form. With a preseason 1.67 goals-against average and .942 save percentage in four games, he did just that.
Tocchet, who last season replaced the fired Barry Melrose, has the respect of the players, seems to have found the right balance of practice and rest and has begun imprinting his sandpaper personality on the team.
Running his first training camp, he also gets to set the rules as to what will and won't be tolerated with effort and accountability. Bringing in Adam Oates during training camp to coach the power play was a terrific move. And hiring him Friday was even better.
His fellow assistants — Rick Wilson, Wes Walz and Cap Raeder — also seem to have found a rhythm.
"I like the things the coaching staff is doing," Lawton said.
Better special teams
Did you see the way the Lightning snapped the puck around against Atlanta? It led to three power-play goals. Based on Oates' puck-movement mantra and with Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis running things from the point and half wall, Tampa Bay converted 24.1 percent of its power-play chances during the preseason, fourth in the league.
Marty will be Marty
The right wing is 34 years old, but St. Louis, last season's team MVP, showed no signs of slowing in the preseason with eight points in four games, including a team-best four goals.
It can't be as bad as last season, can it? The Lightning lost 351 man games to injury or illness, its most since 1999-2000, forcing an NHL record 22 players to be used on the blue line. Strength coach Chuck Lobe revamped the team's conditioning program and has some novel ideas about how to maintain conditioning in-season, namely more weight training.
A better Steven Stamkos
He had 23 goals in his rookie season of 2008-09 but 14 in his final 23 games, when things finally clicked for the talented center, who is just beginning to tap into his upside.
We still don't know who eventually will be the team's majority owner. (Real estate investor Jeff Greene and real estate developer Anthony Sansone still seem the likeliest candidates.) But the bargaining is under the radar, which, generally, keeps it out of the media and the locker room. About $15 million in league revenue sharing has reduced the financial pressure.
A better locker room
With players such as Lecavalier, St. Louis and Ryan Malone taking the lead and the organization paying better attention to how the personalities of the players it signs fit together, this group seems tighter than last season's team. That spills onto the ice.
The final word
"I really like this group of guys. Everybody on the team, for the most part, had a very good preseason. But it's live fire now. We'll find out where we are very quickly."
Brian Lawton, Lightning general manager
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected] Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/lightning.