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Southeast: Tampa trio has been on fire so far

by Robert Picarello / NHL.com

Vaclav Prospal celebrates with Vincent Lecavalier and Filip Kuba after scoring during the the Lightning's 6-2 win over the Atlanta Thrashers Oct 20, 2007.
The Tampa Bay Lightning were hoping to defend their 2004 Stanley Cup championship, but loss of the 2004-05 season to labor strife ended that dream.

Upon returning to play in 2005-06, the Lightning discovered that time waits for no one. The club just wasn’t the same.

For example, some of the key players who had helped the Lightning win the Cup were no longer with the organization and some holdovers just didn't play up to their potential.

"Well, obviously we had it broken a little bit. Because after you've won a Cup, you're excited to come back into the season," said Vincent Lecavalier, who had 16 points in 23 postseason games in 2004. "I had to go play in Russia. Guys were playing in Europe. Some guys weren't playing at all. Yeah, I think it definitely didn't help. But there's no excuse for anything. Everybody started again after that, and the next year after that."

In the two seasons following the lockout, the Lightning haven’t been able to get out of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In the 2005-06 season, Tampa lost to Ottawa in five games in the first round, and last season the Bolts were knocked off in six games by the New Jersey Devils.

This year, Lecavalier likes what he sees.

"I think we have a great team. I think we have a great offensive team," he said, "with the addition of some guys like Chris Gratton, who is a big guy, (who) can score some goals. He puts a lot of depth into our lineup. Guys like (Brad) Lukowich, who won the Cup with us in '04, is back. Just to have these veteran players around, same core guys from last year, some younger guys coming up, so I'm feeling very confident."

That confidence has been evident in the early going this season, as Lecavalier has combined with linemates, Martin St. Louis and Vaclav Prospal, to produce a ton of offense for the Lightning. In the team's first six games, the MVP line has accounted for 25 points off 12 goals and 13 assists. They also have netted four power-play goals and two game-winners between them.

While the trio has opened some eyes around the League this season, the success of the MVP line dates back to last season when the trio put up some monster numbers.

"I think our line really clicked last year,” Lecavalier said. “It was the first year we played together. We started off very well, but then you get this confidence and it just keeps on rolling and rolling. We just kept going."

The MVP line helped the Bolts roll over the opposition right out of the gate, combining for 13 points in the team's first three wins, over the Devils, Thrashers and Panthers. Production like that leaves opposing teams no choice but to throw their best defenders on the ice against Lecavalier and his linemates.

"It's definitely tough. I mean, when you play against some pretty big defensemen out there. Pretty tall guys, 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6," Lecavalier admitted. "You look in our division, with the Florida Panthers, when you have (Bryan) Allen and (Jay) Bouwmeester, two really tall guys that can skate. They're very mobile. It's tough, it really is. You have to go through that. You have to be maybe more physical or play more simple, put the puck behind them instead of trying to deke them or something like that, because it's probably not going to work."

Whatever the MVP line has been doing lately has been working just fine.

Who's hot -- Panthers winger Nathan Horton had a four-game point streak from Oct. 11-18. He is second on the team in scoring with seven points (4-3-7) in Florida's first nine games. His goal with 11 seconds left in regulation on Oct. 16 at Montreal sent the game into overtime, where the Panthers eventually pulled off the come-from-behind win in a shootout. … Carolina's Rod Brind'Amour has points in seven-straight games (two goals, nine assists), and assists in five straight. Wednesday night at the RBC Center, the Hurricanes' captain helped lead his team to victory, scoring a goal and an assist in a 6-2 victory over Buffalo. …

Kovalchuk

Washington rookie Nicklas Backstrom has looked like a poised veteran in the early going. The 19-year-old has set up five goals in his first eight games, including assists in three of his last four games. … Ilya Kovalchuk leads the Thrashers with nine points (five goals, four assists) in nine games this season. Kovalchuk has seven points (four goals, three assists) in his last five games. … Entering Thursday's action, Tampa Bay's Johan Holmqvist was tied for eighth in the NHL in wins with four. In six appearances, Holmqvist has registered a 4-1-0 record, with a 2.62 GAA and a .894 save percentage.

Southeast quotes -- "It's a good start for us, but we're still far, far away from where we want to be."

-- Atlanta goalie Johan Hedberg said after backstopping the Thrashers to their first victory of the year, last week against the Rangers.

"It's nice, but in the big picture it's a team sport. I've been lucky enough to play with good linemates and be in position to play on specialty teams. The main thing is the team getting wins and we keep building, and for me there's no reason to look ahead or look back. I'm just going to keep going and get this team to win. At the end of the day, those points and goals don't mean anything if the team doesn't go in the playoffs."

-- Florida's Olli Jokinen said after becoming the Panthers' all-time leader in goals and points.

A look ahead –--On Friday, Oct. 26, the Capitals are home to take on the visiting Canucks, the Hurricanes play host to Montreal and the Panthers host Buffalo. On Saturday, Oct. 27, the Hurricanes take on the Islanders, the Panthers travel to Nashville, the Thrashers play the Blackhawks, the Capitals are in St. Louis and the Lightning host the Sabres.

 

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