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  1. Lightning

Lightning navigates great expectations

TAMPA — Sports Illustrated has the Lightning comfortably making the playoffs.

The Hockey News, the self-proclaimed bible of hockey, has the Lightning reaching the Stanley Cup final. So do a couple of the hockey guys over at ESPN.

You can even find a few so-called experts out there picking the Lightning to win the whole thing.

Never before — even going back to that magical 2003-04 Stanley Cup-winning campaign — have expectations been this high going into a season for the Lightning.

You can see why.

The Lightning has arguably the best hockey player in the world in Steven Stamkos. It has one of the game's elite goalies in Ben Bishop. It has one of the brightest hockey minds in the game in coach Jon Cooper. And it has a talented mix of eager kids and hard-working veterans.

Everything seems good.

Maybe a little too good, you know?

"It should be a good year,'' Stamkos said, "but stranger things have happened.''

Quite frankly, the biggest worry is that everybody thinks the Lightning is going to be really good.

"It can get a little tricky,'' Stamkos said about all these lofty predictions. "Obviously, we want to head into the season with the mentality that we are a good team. We want to get to the playoffs and make some noise, but that's something that's really far off in the distance right now.''

In other words, everybody take a deep breath and calm down for a second.

Remember last spring when the Rays were picked by many to win the World Series?

Anyone recall that the Bucs were the chic team to watch in their division under new coach Lovie Smith?

Yeah, how is that all working out?

And let's not forget the last time everyone was this high on the Lightning. That was 2011, when the Lightning came within a couple of goals of reaching the Stanley Cup final. What happened the following season? It didn't even make the playoffs.

So you can also understand why it might be prudent to watch a few Lightning games before figuring out if the championship parade starts or ends on the plaza outside Amalie Arena.

"We got to focus on the first game,'' Stamkos said. "It's nice to be (recognized) around the league as being potentially one of the top teams, but that's where the work comes in. That's where we have to fulfill our own expectations of coming to the rink and wanting to learn and wanting to get better.''

Exactly one year ago, no one expected much from the Lightning. Bishop was unproven, and the lineup was littered with a bunch of kids no one knew.

"Everybody picked us to finish last, and we didn't listen to that,'' Bishop said. "We just went out and played hockey. And now people are picking us to finish near the top, and same thing, we're not going to listen to it. We're just going to go out and play hockey.''

That plan worked out just fine last season. Despite losing Stamkos for half the season because of a broken leg and despite trading unhappy captain Marty St. Louis right before the playoff push, the Lightning made the postseason.

And it might have done some damage if Bishop, the player most responsible for Tampa Bay's surprising season, had not gotten hurt right before the playoffs started. Without Bishop, the Lightning was swept by the Canadiens in the first round, a fact not lost on Cooper.

"We haven't proven anything,'' Cooper said. "We're on a four-game losing streak. That's the way I look at it. … So we have a lot to prove to ourselves and how are we going to rebound from what happened in the playoffs.''

Perhaps the best sign about all these rosy predictions is that the Lightning realizes that games are won on ice, not paper.

"I've never really seen this group come in and just throw their sticks on the ice and say, 'Okay, here we are,' '' Cooper said. "Our guys battle pretty hard.''

This team should be good. Real good.

For starters, it improved by parting ways with a few players who seemed like more of a problem than the solution, players such as Teddy Purcell, Ryan Malone and Nate Thompson. It added high-character, skilled players such as Anton Stralman, Jason Garrison, Brian Boyle and Brenden Morrow. It re-signed gritty leader Ryan Callahan.

Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat had superb rookie seasons and should be even better if they don't ease off the pedal. So should Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn and J.T. Brown. Jonathan Drouin is a rookie of the year candidate.

Victor Hedman seems poised to take that final step to becoming one of the game's best defensemen. We take for granted just how steady veteran Valtteri Filppula is.

And then, of course, there are Stamkos and Bishop, the players most critical to the Lightning's success. Both appear just about 100 percent.

Maybe the Lightning is a stride or two behind the Bruins in the East, but it sure looks like a Cup challenger from here.

"Just because the expectations are higher doesn't mean we're a better team and it's going to be easier for us to win,'' Stamkos said. "It's going to be tougher.''

Tougher? Maybe.

But just in case, how about we go ahead and prepare those parade routes.