Lightning eye playoff return in shortened season

Steven Stamkos knows reaching 60-goals again will be unlikely in
this year’s abbreviated 48-game season.

But the Tampa Bay center feels the Lightning returning to the
playoffs is well within reach in the lockout-curtailed
campaign.

”Getting into the playoffs, that’s our goal here,” Stamkos
said. ”We want to be a playoff team. It’s going to be a different
year. It’s a sprint. You’ve got to get off to a good start.”

Stamkos had an NHL-best 60 goals when the Lightning, one year
removed from reaching the Eastern Conference finals, missed out on
postseason play last season.

”After last year, we were very disappointed,” Stamkos said.
”This league is about consistency. You have to find a way that, if
things aren’t going well, you don’t let it slide. Last year we were
guilty of that. We can’t take anything for granted.”

Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, holdovers from Tampa
Bay’s 2004 Stanley Cup championship team, provide a solid nucleus.
Newcomers include goalie Anders Lindback, and defensemen Sami Salo
and Matt Carle.

”Obviously, we want to get into the playoffs,” St. Louis said.
”Get better as the year goes on, and be at the top of our game
when playoffs start. I’m excited about our team, obviously.”

Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher expects the fine-tuning to be
somewhat off for all teams early on, but doesn’t feel intensity
will be an issue.

”I feel that 48 games is plenty of time to have some ups and
some downs, and to manage them,” Boucher said. ”I think there’s
going to be ups and downs like every season, but obviously you
don’t want to have a lull that lasts too long because you’ll
probably be out of the playoffs.

”So definitely there’s going to be urgency from the first game,
first period until the last one,” Boucher added. ”The players are
aware of it, we’re aware if it, but I think it’s going to be good
for the fans. I think the intensity of the games can be extremely
high. I think the main part is that there’s going to be so much
intensity in those games it’s going to be very, very
interesting.”

The NHL also played a 48-game season following a lockout in the
1994-95 season, when Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman was a
star with the Detroit Red Wings.

”What really stood out to me that year was, it was like
playoffs from Day 1,” Yzerman said. ”You played virtually every
second day. You’re always preparing for a game. There was no breaks
in the schedule. It’s a playoff kind of atmosphere. It was
enjoyable. We played a lot of games. You didn’t practice a whole
lot. You were always on the go. Every game takes on even more
importance.”

The Lightning host the Washington Capitals in the regular-season
opener on Saturday night.

”This one we had to wait for,” Tampa Bay chairman Jeff Vinik
said. ”Steve Yzerman’s had a great offseason, and we’re thrilled
the puck drops” Saturday.