Lightning poised to strike again

After missing the playoffs for three straight years, the Lightning made it back, and made some noise, last year.

Tampa Bay knocked off Pittsburgh and Washington to reach the Eastern Conference final before falling to Boston in seven games. It was a bitter finish, but great strides were made in the first season with Guy Boucher behind the bench and Steve Yzerman in the general manager’s seat and the Lightning are poised to remain a top contender in the East for the foreseeable future under their stewardship.

2010-11 record: 46-25-11, 103 points (2nd Southeast Division; 5th Eastern Conference; beat Pittsburgh 4-3 in first round and Washington 4-0 in second round of the playoffs, lost to Boston 4-3 in Eastern Conference final).

Key additions: G Mathieu Garon (free agent); D Bruno Gervais (trade with NY Islanders); D Matt Gilroy (free agent); F Alexandre Picard (free agent); F Ryan Shannon (free agent); D Richard Petiot (free agent); F Michel Ouellet (free agent); F Tom Pyatt (free agent); F Trevor Smith (free agent).

Key losses: F Simon Gagne (signed with Los Angeles); F Sean Bergenheim (signed with Florida); G Mike Smith (signed with Phoenix); D Randy Jones (signed with Winnipeg); D Mike Lundin (signed with Minnesota); D Matt Smaby (signed with Anaheim); D Mathieu Roy (free agent); F Marc Pouliot (signed with Phoenix).

Burning question: Can Dwayne Roloson continue to defy the aging process?

The Lightning’s most important in-season move last year was trading for veteran netminder Roloson, who shored up a questionable goaltending situation down the stretch and keyed Tampa’s wins in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Roloson was 18-12-4 with a 2.56 GAA and .912 save percentage with Tampa, and then went 10-6 with a 2.51 GAA and a .924 save percentage in the playoffs. Those numbers were even better before he met up with the Bruins, as Roloson led the NHL with a 2.01 GAA and .941 save percentage going into that series.

But Roloson turns 42 on Oct. 12, and age has to catch up to him eventually. The Lightning signed Mathieu Garon as a backup after former starter Smith headed West to Phoenix, but they’re banking on Roloson having at least one more big year in him.

2011-12 outlook: Tampa Bay possesses the kind of top-end talent few teams can match, especially up front. They kept their core together by re-signing restricted free agent Steven Stamkos (45-46-91 last year) this summer, and he’ll once again join Martin St. Louis (31-68-99) and Vincent Lecavalier (25-29-54) to give the Lightning a potent attack.

Teddy Purcell (17-34-51), Steve Downie (10-22-32 in 57 games), Ryan Malone (14-24-38) and Dominic Moore (18-14-32) round out a deep forward corps, though Tampa did take a hit with the departure of free agent Gagne and Malone is questionable for the start of the season after offseason shoulder surgery.

The defense isn’t as deep, but Tampa did re-sign trade deadline pickup Eric Brewer and Victor Hedman, the second overall pick in 2009, continues to progress.

Did you know?: The Lightning’s playoff wins over Pittsburgh and Washington were the first series Tampa had won since claiming the Cup in the final season before the owners’ lockout in 2003-04. Tampa lost in the opening round in both 2006 and 2007 to Ottawa and New Jersey, respectively, then did not make the playoffs for the next three seasons.