Undeterred by critics, Lightning stick to their plan

When last we checked in with the Tampa Bay Lightning, they had pretty much been kicked to the hockey curb.

GM Jay Feaster was being flayed for having tied up so much of his salary cap on three players, none of which was a goaltender.

Combustible coach John Tortorella was being written off as having combusted once too often.

The team, it was said, tuned Tortorella out and was directionless, while other teams were lining up to pick the Bolts' bones.

Pretty grim, right?

"It was no secret. It was in the papers. They even talked to us and said we're going to make some moves," Lightning defenseman Dan Boyle recalled in an interview with ESPN.com. "We have a pretty high payroll and [ownership] wants to get a return for that."

But here we are, with less than a third of a season to play, and the same Lightning club is one of the hottest teams in the NHL, without making any of the dramatic moves prescribed a mere month ago.

Winners of 16 of their last 22 games, the Lightning are within shouting distance of the Southeast Division lead (they trailed Atlanta by five points and had a game in hand as of Thursday) and more closely resemble the team that won the 2004 Stanley Cup than the one that was mired in the Eastern Conference cellar before Christmas.

If anything, the Lightning are a testament to patience, holding firm to a belief that whatever the questions, the answers are in the room and nowhere else.

"It's not always about making changes," Tortorella told ESPN.com this week. "It's about sticking with it and these guys here have stuck with it. If you start thinking about changing things that have been successful for you in the past, you're more or less panicking in front of the players."

What happens if those changes don't take? Where are you then? A lottery pick and, in the case of the coach and maybe the GM, likely for the high dive.

But the Bolts simply kept doing what they had been doing. The one-goal losses, poor penalty killing and spotty goaltending that plagued them over the season's first half evaporated. The team is in the midst of a franchise-best seven-game road winning streak. They are first in the league in road scoring and third with 16 road wins, a sure-fire sign of a contender.

It's not perfect by any means.

The Lightning continue to rank last in the NHL in penalty killing, but allowed just one power-play goal over their last five games (a 17-for-18 showing).

Another signal the Lightning have returned to contender status is they are second only to New Jersey in fewest power-play opportunities in the NHL. Discipline is a hallmark of champions.

There are a number of reasons for the turnaround.

Goaltending, a bugaboo for the team a season ago, has turned a significant corner. Johan Holmqvist has emerged as a more than capable starter and has won nine of his last 10 starts. In his only loss, the 28-year-old Swede, who is in his first season in the NHL, gave up just one goal (the other was an empty-netter) in a 2-0 loss against New Jersey.

Marc Denis, expected to be the No. 1 man after his offseason acquisition from Columbus for Fredrik Modin, has regained his confidence after a miserable first half and is supplying more-than-adequate relief work. He's won five of his last eight starts.

Tortorella, of course, has developed a reputation as a goalie killer, but the reality is he merely holds his goalies to the same standards as Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and the rest of the team. Tortorella laughs at the notion that it's somehow seen as bad form to criticize goaltenders.

"No one wants to discuss it. But it's the most important part of winning in the NHL," he said.

Critics call it criticizing. "I call it coaching," Tortorella said.

One pro scout credits the turnaround to leadership shown by the team's elite players: Lecavalier, St. Louis, Boyle and Brad Richards.

"Lecavalier and St. Louis are 'tone setters,'" the scout told ESPN.com. "As a coach, you love to have players like this because the intensity they bring to a game just demands respect and performance out of their peers. Tortorella has done a good job of pushing them, too.

"They demonstrated they are willing to outwork their competitors for the advantage, not just rest on their skill [and hope] to get things done. Whatever they demand out of their peers, they demand more of themselves. There are a lot of good players in this league that don't set a tone. These players often feel they don't have enough on their own team to support their great skill, and their lack of action shouts this out."

Tortorella agrees, saying Lecavalier has gone from being a part-time game-breaker a few seasons ago to becoming a game-breaker almost every night. St. Louis has likewise put behind a disappointing 2005-06 campaign that coincided with the signing of a rich, multiyear contract. As of Thursday, St. Louis and Lecavalier ranked second and third, respectively, in NHL point production. Lecavalier led the league in goals, while St. Louis was third.

Perhaps surprisingly, Tortorella also had high praise for Richards, the third member of the so-called Tampa Bay Triplets, who inked a whopper five-year, $39 million offseason deal only to struggle this season. After a 91-point campaign in 2005-06, Richards has slumped, posting 45 points through 55 games this season. But Tortorella points out the Prince Edward Island native has played most of the season without his previous linemates. Lecavalier is playing primarily with St. Louis and Vaclav Prospal, while Modin is no longer with the team.

"He sees Vinny and Marty taking off and it's human nature to want to be with them when it comes to statistics," Tortorella said. "But it hasn't gotten him down to the level where he's forgotten about the other parts of his game. In every important situation on the ice, Brad Richards is on the ice."

How dramatically have things changed for the Lightning? A month ago, there were strong rumors the team would soon be in fire sale mode. It did waive Dimitry Afanasenkov, who was claimed by Philadelphia. More recently, the Bolts shed bits of salary in the form of minor league defenseman Andy Delmore, acquired by Atlanta, and former netminder Sean Burke, who was picked up by Los Angeles.

But instead of being in full-blown sell mode, the Lightning are now in the market for a puck-moving defenseman (like most of the NHL) before the trade deadline with an eye on a long playoff run.

A run many weren't talking about a month ago.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.