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Lightning streaks into playoff race

What we are about to discus is such a long shot it would be worth four points in a basketball game.

On the other hand, it has been five years since the Lightning even sniffed a playoff race this late in the season, so why not have a little fun?

"It is exciting," center Vinny Lecavalier said after Thursday's practice at the Ice Sports Forum. "The past few seasons, in January or February, we were out of it, and it wasn't fun at all. Now we're in a situation where we can do something about it."

Some extraordinary things have to happen for the Lightning to get into the playoffs.

Tampa Bay's 62 points are 10 behind the Canadiens for the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference. Assuming Montreal goes 6-6 in its final 12 games, the Lightning would have to go 11-2 in its final 13 to match Montreal's 84 points.

Tampa Bay also has to hope for missteps by the Rangers, Sabres, Penguins and Capitals, all of whom are fighting for that final spot.

How tough will this be?

According to the Hockey News, only six teams in the past five seasons worked into the playoffs in the final quarter of the season. Only one _ the 1996-97 Mighty Ducks _ came from a position other than ninth. They were 10th in the West.

Tampa Bay is 13th in the East.

Now the silver lining. The Lightning has played one fewer game than the Canadiens and faces them twice in the next week, including tonight at the Ice Palace. Those are six points waiting to be snatched.

It also faces the Rangers, Capitals and Penguins.

But first things first. It is not a stretch to say tonight's game is the biggest Tampa Bay has played since it fell three points short of the 1996-97 playoffs.

"It kind of snuck up on us," said defenseman Jassen Cullimore, whom the Lightning claimed off waivers from the Canadiens in 1998. "We're plugging along, each game at a time, and now this comes up."

It has come up because Tampa Bay is riding a six-game unbeaten streak (3-0-3) that is one off the team record set in 1996.

It has come up because going into Thursday's games the Lightning's 14 points since the Olympic break were tied with the Maple Leafs, Sabres and Senators for most in the East.

"I think we have a chance," defenseman Dan Boyle said of the playoffs.

"It's definitely in the back of our minds," forward Sheldon Keefe said. "The key is to approach every game like we have nothing to lose. We're going to play hard, and at the end we're going to see."

What coach John Tortorella would like to see is the team get off to a fast start.

Tampa Bay has had to come from behind to earn points in six of 11 games since the Olympics, four of its past five.

That is no way to go against a motivated Canadiens team that is 2-0-2 in its past four.

"I really believe our guys will be ready," Tortorella said. "I thought they practiced very well today. I think they feel good about themselves. The key is not feeling too good about yourself."

That's why Tortorella has not said a word about the playoffs.

"Never even talk about it," he said. "I think all the games have meaning. Every game we're trying to approach is to play hard. We're going out there to play as hard as we can, so the playoff atmosphere and streaks mean nothing. It's the next game for us, and we're going to approach it that way."

Sorry, Coach.

The Lightning has more points and more victories than any season since 1996-97 and actually is playing one of those "meaningful games in March" ownership said it would use to rate whether the season was a success.

This is not just another game.

"They're the team we're trying to catch," Boyle said of the Canadiens. "If we want a chance at the playoffs, we have to beat them. Losing versus them would not be good."

Especially if they want to play meaningful games in April.

Solid second season

After the Olympic break Lightning coach John Tortorella challenged his team to play the rest of the schedule as a second season. Here's how the team and the rest of the Eastern Conference have fared since the break:

W L T OL Pts.

New Jersey 7 4 0 1 15

Ottawa 6 5 1 1 14

Buffalo 6 5 2 0 14

Tampa Bay 5 2 3 1 14

Toronto 5 3 4 0 14

Montreal 5 4 3 0 13

Boston 6 5 1 0 13

Washington 6 5 1 0 13

Carolina 5 2 3 0 13

Philadelphia 5 5 2 0 12

Pittsburgh 5 7 0 0 10

N.Y. Islanders 4 6 1 1 10

N.Y. Rangers 4 8 0 1 9

Florida 2 5 2 2 8

Atlanta 3 8 1 0 7

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