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Lightning struck by new-look defense

It was a blip on the NHL screen _ barely mentioned on ESPN and buried deep inside most newspapers.

Tampa Bay traded Drew Bannister to Edmonton for Jeff Norton and Tyler Moss to Calgary for Jamie Huscroft.

That was a week ago and, no, The Hockey News hasn't shown up at the Ice Palace to break down the trade. And the league isn't engraving Lightning names on the Stanley Cup just yet.

But Lightning players will testify that the chances of Tampa Bay making the playoffs are better than they were before Phil Esposito placed calls to western Canada last Tuesday.

"Good trades," defenseman Bill Houlder said.

"Much improved," defenseman David Shaw said.

"So far, so good," coach Terry Crisp said.

In fact, only one player sees a problem with the trades.

"I wish we had those guys three weeks ago," center Chris Gratton said.

It has been only three games since Norton and Huscroft started wearing the Lightning colors. And Tampa Bay lost two of those three games. Yet the Lightning defensive corps has taken on a whole new look with the additions of Norton and Huscroft.

What used to be slow is fast. What used to be soft is tough. What used to be a weakness is a strength.

All because of two players.

"Those two guys really have changed the complexion of our defense," Houlder said. "With Norton, we now have a guy who can really skate. He's our best skater back there. And with Huscroft, we have a guy who is really strong. And he's now our strongest guy back there.

"When you add that kind of speed and that kind of toughness, you've really improved yourselves. I think you saw that on the road trip."

Before they had a chance to shake hands with all of their new teammates, Norton and Huscroft were thrown into the lineup during last week's swing through western Canada.

And this was no test drive. Each logged miles of ice even when Crisp trimmed his defense to two pairs. In fact, Norton and Huscroft led the team in ice time in Saturday's game against Vancouver.

"That's why we got them," Crisp said. "Might as well find out right now what we got."

And what did he find out?

"That our power play is better because of Norton," Crisp said. "And that the front of our net is cleared a little better because of Huscroft. And that these two guys are doing what we hoped they would do."

And more. The acquisitions of Norton and Huscroft helped Tampa Bay reacquire another defenseman: Roman Hamrlik, who might have found his game again because of the trades.

On the three-game swing, Hamrlik was paired with the defensive-minded Huscroft. That allowed Hamrlik to jump into the offensive rush. And by playing with Norton on the power play, Hamrlik can shed the responsibility of lugging the puck up the ice and concentrate on what he does best_ passing and shooting.

"I feel a lot less pressure knowing I don't always have to bring the puck up," Hamrlik said. "I thought the power play looked as good as it has all season over the past couple games. Norton has so much speed that teams have to respect it. They back off and that means everyone has more room out there. I know I had a lot more room to do what I want to do, which is shoot and make plays."

Norton and Huscroft were not at Monday's practice. Both were given an extra day at home to take care of family matters before moving to Florida. But their presence was alive in the Lightning locker room thanks to memories of the recent road trip.

"If the games out West were any indication, these guys are going to help a lot," Gratton said. "Norton can beat two or three guys with his skating and put the puck right on the tape. Huscroft is a dirty, mean, nasty defenseman we've needed. These guys are going to make a difference down the stretch."

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