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Teamwork, toughness, togetherness

Terry Crisp, do you believe you are in first place in the Norris Division?

"I hope you can ask me the same question in April," the Tampa Bay Lightning coach said Wednesday.

There's a long hockey season left until the Lightning plays its last regular-season game on April 15. It's four games down, 80 to go.

"It's a very exciting start, but it's just the beginning," said defenseman Doug Crossman, a 12-year veteran. "There are actually many different seasons in hockey. You start with the intrasquad season, when the younger guys show what they've got. Then you've got the preseason, when the older guys start to take over.

"Then there is the 84 regular-season games and the playoffs. We're just beginning our third season, I guess you could say."

Since the first preseason game Sept. 18, the Esposito brothers' collection of draft picks, free agents and trade acquisitions has surprised just about everyone in hockey with its 2-1-1 start.

San Jose, an expansion team last season, didn't win its first road game until its 15th try. And the Sharks won only three road games all season.

"I don't think anyone expected Tampa Bay to be doing this," St. Louis coach Bob Plager said Tuesday night after the Lightning beat his Blues 2-1 at St. Louis Arena. "They are playing like they're on a mission _ that they've got something to prove."

The Lightning's five points (two points for each win and one for the tie) puts it ahead of every team _ Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Minnesota and Toronto _ in the Norris Division. Tonight at Maple Leaf Gardens the Lightning gets its first crack at Toronto, which is off to an 0-2-1 start.

"We keep meeting wounded bears," Crisp said.

At the Lightning's present regular-season pace, it would post 105 points for the season. How good is that? Last season the New York Rangers were the only team to break the 100-point mark in the 80-game season.

Nobody, not even the Lightning, expects to sustain the pace.

"We'll be able to give the same type of work ethic most every night," Crisp said. "But we won't be able to sustain the hype or adrenaline for 80 more games."

Lighting general manager Phil Esposito said his goal for the team was to post 40 points, one more than the Sharks mustered last season.

Esposito even said he thought the team had a chance to make the playoffs, which meant having more points than two of the other Norris Division teams over 84 games.

"I realistically believe we can make the playoffs," Crossman said. "We're not from a rummage sale like everybody thinks. We didn't all quit our factory jobs to fill in _ like they did for the World Football League. We're all bona fide NHL players. We're not guys just starting up a new league or filling in for strike players."

But perhaps no one is more cautious of the team's early success than Crisp _ who gave the Lightning an earful Tuesday night after the team played more like it was trying not to lose, than trying to win.

"We won't win many more if we put in that type of effort," Crisp said.

"We know we can't play our very best for 84 games; we are only human," said center Rob DiMaio, who is the only Lightning player to have a point (a goal and four assists) in every game. "But we've developed a good team that will back each other up. We don't have any clicks on this teams. You know if you go into the corners, somebody will be there to help. And this team doesn't back down to anybody."

The Lightning also has faced teams that haven't really gotten into high gear yet.

But the Lightning, which also hasn't gotten its engine fine-tuned yet _ is on a 13-game roll that started when John Tucker scored to pull the team into a 4-4 tie in its first preseason game.

Add the preseason and regular-season games and Tampa Bay would have an 8-3-2 record.

"I wish we could have all the preseason points," Esposito said.

Perhaps more surprising is that in those 13 games, the Lightning has yet to be blown out. Tampa Bay's biggest defeat was by two goals.

Two big reasons are goaltenders Pat Jablonski and Wendell Young. Jablonski has saved 75 of 80 shots on goal in the regular season and Young has stopped 56 of 61 shots. In four regular-season games, the Lightning has allowed 10 goals in four games (2.5 per game).

The best goals-against average last season was Montreal's Patrick Roy (2.36 goals per game).

The Lightning has two games left (tonight at Toronto and Friday night at Buffalo) on a five-game road trip.

Note: Fans who buy two or more tickets to any one of four home games at Expo Hall (Oct. 20 vs. Edmonton), Oct. 22 vs. Toronto, Oct. 24 vs. Quebec and Oct. 30 vs. San Jose) will receive a free video of the Lightning's pregame show and stunning 7-3 victory over Stanley Cup finalist Chicago in its season-opener.

Once the promotion is over, the tape will be available for $29.95. Each season-ticket account will also receive a free copy in the mail.