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Travel brings triumph

Be it the firmness of a four-star hotel room mattress or the punctuality of the afternoon shuttle to the arena, there is something clearly comforting about the road for the Lightning.

Consider: with a win tonight in Philadelphia _ not a stretch since the Lightning won there in overtime on Dec. 18 and beat the Flyers in Tampa on Jan. 3 _ Tampa Bay would tie its road win total for all of last season at 14. And it still would have 15 of its 30 road games remaining.

So what gives?

"I have no idea," center Vinny Lecavalier said. "I think we just don't take it as a road game. We play like we play in Tampa, don't stay back and just go after teams, get that first goal and go from there."

As with all things for the Lightning, it comes back to the system. The same dogged dedication to the team concept that bound it together through a wicked late November and 4-9-2 December apparently simplifies things on the road, where home teams often play to the crowd, trying to be too fancy instead of playing their system.

"We're not preparing any different for situations," said goaltender John Grahame, who is 10-2-1 on the road this season and shares the team lead in wins (13) with Nikolai Khabibulin. "We want to go out and force the play and keep the puck moving and everyone back each other up and that's our game plan for every game. When we're on the road, I think we're paying attention to the details a little more, and I think we need to pick that up a little more at home if we want to be successful."

The Lightning certainly drew the blueprint in January, going 11-3-0-2 to come from eight points back of Atlanta in the Southeast Division on Dec. 26 to 11 points up on the Thrashers after a 5-2 home win on Saturday. Tampa Bay is 13-7-3-2 at home this season and 13-9-3-1 on the road.

Whatever the Lightning accomplishes this season, success on the road will be credited for turning around a regular season that was foundering in late December.

A seven-day, five-game road that threatened to scuttle the Lightning's hope of repeating as Southeast champion actually rekindled the season.

After losing 5-2 at Ottawa on Jan. 6, the Lightning beat Montreal, New Jersey, the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh, setting a franchise record for consecutive wins on a road trip. After losing at Florida Jan. 17, Tampa Bay started a swing by earning a point in an overtime loss at Vancouver, then beat Edmonton, Calgary and Pittsburgh in a five-day span.

The Lightning ended a three-week surge with a seven-point lead in the Southeast over lilting Atlanta and rediscovered the confidence and swagger that had been lost at year's end. Its win streak stands at five after subsequent home victories over Pittsburgh and Atlanta.

The Lightning also found its ability to score somewhere in the seat cushions of a chartered plane, getting 35 goals in 10 January road games, nine by Martin St. Louis.

St. Louis had no idea his team is so much better on the road than it was last season.

"Is that right?" he said. "Well, I guess when you're on the road you just concentrate on playing some strong, simple hockey and obviously we're getting the goaltending right now, and we're scoring goals. Combine that and you usually get a win."

Winning on the road, and the fact the Lightning is quietly comfortable doing it, figures to make the team tough every night.

"We're used to the home schedule and away schedule," Lecavalier said. "It's supposed to be tougher on the road, but when you're ready to play, nothing matters but the game."

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