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A feisty team in the works

No need to buy a telescope to watch the Tampa Bay Lightning. There are no stars.

Well, you can focus on Phil and Tony Esposito, but their days of goals and saves are long over.

So why bother to come see the new pucksters on the NHL block?

"We're going to be hard-working and entertaining and put out an honest effort every night," Lightning coach Terry Crisp said. "And we might just win some games."

When the Espositos started collecting the building blocks to construct their expansion team, the established NHL teams held onto their cornerstone players with a vise grip.

So the Espositos went with the next best, getting sturdy, rugged and dependable players with character _ the Rob Ramages and Basil McRaes of the hockey world.

"Ramage and McRae have worked their whole careers for everything they've got," Crisp said. "That's a pretty good nucleus for us to start with."

They also picked up other players of a similar mold in that expansion draft: left wing Mike Hartman and defensemen Joe Reekie, Peter Taglianetti, Doug Crossman and Shawn Chambers.

"Tampa Bay is a team that isn't going to be pushed around," said Don Cherry, broadcaster for Hockey Night in Canada and a former Boston Bruins coach. "Teams are going to know they were in a hockey game when they leave Tampa Bay's rink."

The Lightning also acquired some other key parts of the foundation in that expansion draft:

Anatoli Semenov, an experienced center who learned the trade in Moscow.

Michel Mongeau, a playmaker and prolific goal scorer in the minors who could blossom in the NHL with playing time.

Brian Bradley, a skilled offensive player who also should put up big numbers with ice time.

Wendell Young, a steady and dependable goaltender.

Tim Bergland, Rob DiMaio and Steve Maltais, three young forwards who could come into their own.

But everyone in the hockey world knows Phil Esposito never stands pat. The general manager spent a busy summer signing free agents:

Mikael Andersson, a speedy left winger who can score.

Marc Bergevin, a tough defenseman.

Jim Benning, a veteran defenseman.

Jock Callander, a 31-year-old forward who has bounced between the NHL and minors but won't give up.

Chris Kontos, a gifted playmaker and scorer who has yet to find his niche.

Stephane Richer, an offensive-minded defenseman on the verge of making the jump to the NHL.

John Tucker, who could become the team's biggest goal scorer.

Rob Zamuner, Phil Esposito's steal from his old New York Rangers team.

Esposito's wheeling and dealing also landed these five players in trades: Pat Jablonski, an experienced goaltender; Martin Simard, a tough right winger; Ken Hodge, a 30-goal scorer two seasons ago as a rookie; Danton Cole, a speedy right winger; and Steve Tuttle, looking to return to the NHL after a great season in the minors.

And add in rugged and gifted defenseman Roman Hamrlik (the No. 1 pick overall in the entry draft) and two tryouts who have been shining: Rick Lanz, a veteran NHL defenseman who has been out three years with injuries, and Stan Drulia, who has scored everywhere he's played but has yet to make the NHL.

Yep, no stars in that lot. But what do all the pieces add up to?

A. The league's doormat _ a team to rival the Washington Capitals' expansion record of 8-67-5 for 21 points?

B. The league's biggest surprise _ a team that sneaks into the fourth playoff spot in the Norris Division, as Phil Esposito thinks is possible?

C. The league's blue-collar team, one that never goes home without a few bumps and bruises?

The Lightning should fare better than the Capitals did, but don't expect them to make the playoffs, either.

The correct answer is C.

"We do have a blue-collar team," Crisp said. "If we're going to be successful, the games are going to be sheer, dog-determination efforts.

"If we don't get a deep-down effort from everybody, we don't stand a chance of being successful. We can't have any passengers."

It's easy to say now that the Lightning will come to play every night. It's been like that every game in the preseason, starting with the effort Reekie gave in the third period of the preseason opener when he backchecked so hard he ran into the post and got a nasty bump on his face and injured his leg.

"It's minor," he said, shrugging it off.

But then again, the preseason was a time when every player was fighting for a spot on the roster. So why will these sheer, dog-determination efforts continue in the regular season?

"Because we have guys who are willing to pay the price," Hartman said. "They've done it all their careers.

"And we're a close team that will back each other up," Young added. "We have to work as a unit. That's the bottom line. We don't have any dominating players who can carry us."

But the Lightning does have tough players _ big and small. They insist, however, that their toughness doesn't necessarily translate into goonery.

"We don't want bravado," Crisp said. "We don't want guys sitting in the penalty box all night."

What Crisp does want, and what he likely will get, is the kind of toughness that does not show up in the box score. His definition of toughness includes the player who:

goes into the corner with his face up against the glass but comes out with the puck.

parks himself in front of the net during a power play and absorbs all the abuse without taking a penalty.

gets a cut requiring 20 stitches in the first eight minutes of play in a big game and returns before the period is over.

The Lightning also has a team of survivors. Crisp should know. He played 11 seasons in the NHL, surviving more on guile and grit than natural ability.

The same goes for guys like left winger McRae. McRae has scored in doubles figures only once in his 11-year NHL career and has never had more than 19 assists in a season. But when his former team, the North Stars, lost him in the expansion draft, the phone lines were jammed the next day at the Met Center by fans who demanded that the Stars get Basil back.

"The way I look at it, we're the best of a bad lot," McRae said. "We're the best of the guys who were left unprotected."

The Lightning is full of role players who have played their roles very well over the years.

"We really don't have a lot of complete, well-rounded players," McRae said. "But we have a lot of character. And probably we have the best third- and fourth-liners in the league. In order for us to win, we're gonna have to play that kind of third- and fourth-line hockey. Just dump (the puck) in. Bump and hit and have everyone go to the net. A lot of our goals are not going to be fancy."

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