- Scott Burnside, NHL
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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Two years ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning were like every other NHL wannabe, swimming against the current, wondering, hoping but not really knowing what their future might hold.
The Lightning entered January 2004 hovering around the .500 mark, trailing the Atlanta Thrashers in the Southeast Division, with only a hint that they were about to enjoy a scorching second half that would take them to the top of the Eastern Conference and on to a seminal Stanley Cup win in Game 7 against the Calgary Flames.
When the Lightning took the ice Thursday night in Buffalo against the surprising Sabres, they occupied almost exactly the same statistical position as that of two years ago, hovering around .500 and trailing the division-leading Carolina Hurricanes by nine points.
A blueprint for glory?
Maybe. Maybe not.
In spite of the statistical similarities, things are markedly different in the Tampa dressing room, where the team enters 2006 with simply qualifying for the playoffs a more immediate concern than defending the Cup.
"This season has been a constant dogfight, every day," GM Jay Feaster told ESPN.com this week. "We haven't found consistency in every area of our game at the same time."
Since mid-October, the Lightning have enjoyed long stretches of inspired play. They have had streaks where they went 5-1-1, 5-0-1 and 6-1. But sandwiched around those periods of success have been a six-game losing streak and a 1-6 stretch in December.
Thursday's 3-1 loss to Buffalo brought a modest two-game winning streak to an end and leaves the Lightning with a record of 21-18-3, seventh in the Eastern Conference.
At one point Monday afternoon, the Lightning actually dipped below the playoff Mendoza line into ninth place.
"We get there and we just can't take that next step. That's where we've got to be as a team this second half," coach John Tortorella said before Thursday's game. "I call it 'almost' -- almost there, almost make that play, almost get your stick on the puck. We have to turn that our way."
A team with oodles of offensive talent -- including Olympians Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis and Vaclav Prospal -- curiously ranks 27th in the NHL, 29th at home, on the man advantage. Thursday was just another day at the frustration plant for the Lightning power play as the team went 0-for-4 with the man advantage; the Sabres scored twice on the power play.
"We would be one of the top teams in the league if our power play was just decent," Feaster said.
Said Tortorella: "They know it's costing us. And I go back to the people that we have. Eventually that thing has to turn around. I just believe that because we have good players. Right now, we just lack so much confidence when we're up a man it's almost like we're waiting, that something bad is going to happen to us when we get on the power play."
The fact the Lightning blazed through the second half of the 2003-04 season can be viewed two ways. The knowledge that it can be done should instill a sense of calm in the room, keeping at bay the panic that might grip less experienced teams. On the other hand, it could provide a false sense of security that the Lightning can simply flip the switch and do it again.
"I don't think this group of guys are assuming anything," Tortorella insisted. "I think they're mature enough to understand that we have been up and down, inconsistent in all parts of our game. But we're still sniffing, we're still sniffing."
Although the Lightning did not undergo the dramatic lineup upheavals many thought would result from the new collective bargaining agreement, there have been changes, some subtle, some not.
The one dramatic change was in goal, where Nikolai Khabibulin chased the money to Chicago, where he is the highest-paid netminder in the game while ranking 53rd statistically. In the Bulin Wall's place, the Bolts have turned to 2003-04 backup John Grahame and veteran free agent Sean Burke. Neither has seized the starter's role, although Grahame recently enjoyed a nine-game winning streak and Burke has been solid while starting three of the last four games.
Up front, Prospal essentially replaced Cory Stillman, now in Carolina, and rookies Paul Ranger, Evgeny Artyhukin and Ryan Craig have all made impressions. Popular rough-and-tumble forward Chris Dingman was waived recently, and Feaster said that if he can find a way to improve the team through trade, he will, although the Lightning are within $1 million of the $39 million salary cap.
Of all the changes from two years ago, the biggest is the obvious fact that the Lightning are the defending Stanley Cup champions. In the Lightning dressing room and the dressing room of every opponent, it is a factor that cannot be understated. The adjustment of going from the hunter to the hunted is significant. The burden of expectations from fans, the media and from each other is a significant dynamic. It is so for every Cup winner, and the Lightning are no different in that respect.
"Expectations are a funny thing after you win. And that's around us," Tortorella said. "I think contracts are around us. There's so many bits and pieces that come around you when you've won.
"The players can say, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, we're ready for it.' But you're not ready for it until you go through it," he said.
Defending NHL scoring champ and league MVP St. Louis illustrates this dynamic perfectly. He signed a long-term deal in the offseason but got off to a slow start. He admitted he put a lot of pressure on himself to produce, to live up to the expectations.
"I guess individually I didn't think it would be this hard. I didn't know it was going to be a grind the whole year," St. Louis said.
If he reflects the team's struggles, St. Louis also reflects the possibilities. In the second period Thursday, St. Louis knocked in a puck out of midair for his 15th goal of the season and second in three games. His play has picked up appreciably in recent weeks and will be a crucial element in the second half of the season.
"I feel this year has been more of a roller coaster ride, the highs and the lows," defenseman Dan Boyle said. "When we had that winning streak, we couldn't do anything wrong. But those two losing streaks, it's been really frustrating."
If there is one constant with the Lightning, it is Tortorella's uncompromising approach. During the 2003-04 season, he benched or reduced ice time for all the team's biggest stars. He has done so again this year, at one point making captain Dave Andreychuk a healthy scratch. Most recently, he blasted Grahame for letting in a weak goal that cost them a game against Montreal.
Tortorella apologized the next day, but he remains a powerful force at the helm of this team.
Feaster laughed out loud when asked whether he had ever considered asking Tortorella to tone down his style.
"I'd have an easier time becoming a 7-foot tall guy than trying to change John," Feaster said. "The players understand. You'd better know the drill when you sign on here. I think the players realize it isn't personal. I've said this before -- he was born without a political correctness gene. He can't finesse it. He can't sugarcoat it."
So what's next for the defending Stanley Cup champions?
"I don't have the answer," Tortorella said. "I don't know what type of second half we're going to have. I'm not going to be a coach saying, 'Yeah, we're ready to go, we're going to do this, that.' I don't have a crystal ball. I don't know what's going to happen. But I know there's not going to be a bunch of changes with this team; we're going to do it within and just try and get consistent. We just believe in the guys in the room there."
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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