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Surging Lightning closing gap in playoff race

by Lonnie Herman
TAMPA -- It isn't necessary to look too far back in order to see the depths to which the Tampa Bay Lightning had fallen.

In 2011, the Lightning had come within a game of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final.

But this season, on Jan. 17, Tampa Bay was in last place in the Eastern Conference and in the midst of a seven-game losing streak. The Lightning had yet to win a game in 2012 and had fallen 12 points out of contention for the last playoff position.

They were dead in the water.


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Twenty-one games later, Tampa Bay has closed the gap between itself and the post-season to two points heading into Tuesday's game against the Ottawa Senators at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. The Lightning are riding a five-game home winning streak while having won their last four games by one goal -- including back-to-back overtime wins against the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes.

It's a strong turnaround, without question, even more impressive when you consider that they have done it without captain Vincent Lecavalier, who has missed seven games with a fractured hand, and defenseman Victor Hedman, who has sat out 18 games since the New Year, first with a concussion and now with an upper-body injury.

But where has this burst of winning come from and what is it that has brought the club around?

Ask the coach and the players and the answers are varied; everything from winning the special teams battles to improved focus. They point to urgency, improved goaltending and even the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.

"If you hung around with me for the last 20 years, you would know that I'm the last guy to quit," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "My motto has always been, 'So nobody believes? Well I do!' The players have that.

"Look at Abraham Lincoln. How did this guy get to be one of the most important presidents? If you look at everything that happened to him, a thousand times he could have quit and done something else or quit after failing. I just think those stories are the most inspiring so why don't you do that today yourself? We have a chance every day to do something outstanding or choose to fail and quit."

Of course, Lincoln didn't have netminders who were bringing up the rear in save percentage for much of the season. But Mathieu Garon has found his groove, winning 12 of his last 16 decisions, including a current four-game win streak. His goals-against average during that stretch is 2.58.

Mathieu Garon
Goalie - TBL
RECORD: 23-16-4
GAA: 2.85 | SVP: 0.901
"Garon's been great and made some huge saves for us," forward Nate Thompson said. "That's what we need this time of year."

Thompson points to the team focus as a major factor in the upswing.

"Right now, we have the mindset a little more that if something does go wrong, we keep sticking to our game plan and keep pushing ahead," Thompson said. "Against the Rangers we were down 2-0 and against Carolina we were down 3-1, but we kept pushing for 60 minutes and pulled it out.

"I think it's just not worrying about the score during the game. If you're up or down, it's just a matter of sticking to our game plan and doing the things that make us successful. In the broader picture, we're not even worrying about the standings; we're just worrying about ourselves right now. When it comes to the last game, we'll know our fate."

Martin St. Louis agreed.

"We take it a game at a time," St. Louis said. "Doesn't matter what we've done the past couple of games. We're focused on what's next.

"You win one or two and we knew we'd be better. We knew we could put a streak together. Now we're over .500 and in the hunt. I know it's in the locker room. I think we're able to manage our thought process through the close games. We've done that. It's character and poise."

Or, the answer might be urgency. There are only 17 regular season games remaining. If the Lightning are to sneak into the playoffs, there is no time to waste.

"Urgency is everything in this League and the only way to get it is if you have this fear of not doing well," Boucher said. "We didn't have that before Christmas. We had a sense of entitlement and we had injuries, but we thought that didn't matter. The reality is yes, we're good enough to beat anybody but only good enough with the right attitude, the right work ethic and the right discipline. I think we took care of the attitude and we took care of the work ethic and we took care of the discipline.

"If you hung around with me for the last 20 years, you would know that I'm the last guy to quit. My motto has always been, 'So nobody believes? Well I do!' The players have that" -- Lightning head coach Guy Boucher
"Come December, all of a sudden you realize, 'It is true. We're going to have to fight for everything we can get.' We're far from last year. People are missing from last year; it's not the same scenario. It's like a child; you tell him the oven is hot but he's going to stick his hand in it. So, that's how we were. Some of what we were doing didn't have the same feel that it should have -- that it has right now. (It) took a while."

Tampa Bay still has one of the weakest power plays in the NHL, but it has been on the upswing of late, scoring eight times in its last 34 chances with the extra attacker. Indeed, it's a far cry from January, when the power play unit was 3-for-36.

"If you're winning the special teams battle, and our power play is beginning to score, obviously that one extra goal helps," Ryan Malone said. "We've been getting some goals from the secondary lines, which is important. Everyone is chipping in."

But no one is chipping in more than the line of St. Louis, Steven Stamkos and Teddy Purcell.

Of course, Stamkos leads the League in goals with 47, but Purcell has been on fire since he joined the line. He has 19 goals for the season -- a career best -- and has contributed 6 goals and 13 assists over the last nine games.

"They are three smart hockey players with skill and vision and that makes them tough to handle," Boucher said. "Stamkos has the success he has not because of the skills he has, but because he charges right through you. That's determination and persistence and that's the mark of great athletes. Marty St. Louis has that, too. Whether it's St. Louis having that and Stamkos following and now Teddy Purcell; whatever order you want to have it in the end result is three guys are beginning to gel.

"We're like the little dog -- you bite us and all of a sudden we're going to chew quite hard. Sometimes before we didn't get a bite and it was, 'Oh, well, just move along.' We got rid of that before Christmas. Since then, we've been biting."

But keep in mind, the Lightning haven't nailed down a playoff spot yet, and things could turn around again.

"This is what the NHL is -- if we lose three we might be last," Boucher said. "If we win three, we might be third in the conference. That's what it is. That's what you should want, what you should expect and should be prepared for. Because of that, that is how you are going to get your success.

"We're not satisfied yet. Right now, what we have to do and what we need to do, this is outstanding. It's amazing how the players have reacted and it's amazing we're just two points from where we want to be."

In the end, the reasons for the resurgence are a mystery -- one that even if the players could pinpoint, they would likely keep under wraps.

"Obviously, there is something involved," Stamkos said. "But we're not trying to analyze it."

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