- Scott Burnside, NHL
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For most of the first month of the NHL season, there has been pretty much nonstop praise for the Colorado Avalanche and general marveling at the depth of talent in the Western Conference. And with good reason. The West rocks.
The Eastern Conference? Well, after the Pittsburgh Penguins, it's pretty much a scrap heap of the broken-down, dysfunctional and just plain lousy. Or you might be excused if that's the impression you got having to watch Philadelphia, Buffalo, et al flail around on the east side of the continent.
But take a little closer look and, hey, it's the Tampa Bay Lightning sitting atop the Atlantic Division. How the heck did that happen?
Head coach Jon Cooper joked shortly before the Lightning's big home victory Saturday over a tough St. Louis Blues club that he was OK if another rookie head coach, named Patrick Roy, got more attention and people continued to ignore the Lightning right until next April.
"We're 100 percent perfectly fine being in the southeast part of the hockey world until they make the call for the 16 teams to play in the playoffs, and hopefully we're one of them," Cooper told ESPN.com.
If you'd polled most hockey folk a month ago, we’re guessing a significant if not a vast majority didn’t like the Lightning’s chances of somehow ending up in that group of eight that will start the Eastern Conference playoffs next April. Too much uncertainty in net, too little confidence in the team’s defense. Cooper knew all of the rationale dismissing the Lightning and, frankly, didn't disagree with any of it. But from the start of training camp -- his first since taking over for Guy Boucher on March 25 -- Cooper and his staff preached one thing, and that was keeping the puck out of their own goal.
After finishing 26th in goals against last season and 30th the season before, the Lightning have quietly moved into top-10 vicinity this season (as of Sunday they were tied with Vancouver for 10th). That is the kind of improvement that, in general, punches your ticket to the playoffs. A lot of the credit will and should go to the steady netminding of Ben Bishop, who has gone 9-2 with a .925 save percentage and 2.15 GAA. But it’s more than that.
Cooper points to his top players, namely Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos, who have led the way not just offensively as one might expect but in committing themselves to better all-around play. For most of those two players’ careers their skates "have been pointing north," or strictly in the offensive direction, Cooper said. But both have bought into the plan that the route back to the playoffs is through defense.
"I've never seen him play better," Cooper said.
As is often the case, the buy-in from the top players has made getting the rest of the Lightning squad’s buy-in that much easier.
We often talk about a culture of winning and teams turning corners. The last couple of years, the thought of visiting the Lightning in the charming Channelside area of Tampa didn’t strike much fear into the hearts of opposing teams. That’s starting to change, as the Blues witnessed Saturday. The Lightning’s 4-2 win ran their home record to 6-2 on the season.
That, too, was part of the preseason plan, to stop being whipping boys in their own rink, Cooper said.
"We didn’t want to be that team that was easy to play against," he said.
There's still a long way to go, of course, and the Lightning are going to have to keep proving to folks that October wasn’t a fluke, that they aren’t a fluke.
But one day last week the players got on the team flight and someone noted that they were in first place an Atlantic Division that was supposed to be the domain of the Boston Bruins or Detroit Red Wings. It was news to many on the team.
"I love that about our guys," Cooper said. "No one's looking around; no one's patting themselves on the back."
And, oh yeah, they’re still in first place. Go figure.
4hScott Burnside and Craig Custance