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Joe Henderson Columns

Intensity, pressure rises as Bolts head into 2nd half

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 04:33 PM
TAMPA -

Coming into his first season as the Lightning's general manager, Steve Yzerman suspected his team might contend for the playoffs. That was a big goal, considering the Bolts hadn't been to the postseason in three years.

Well, the season resumes Tuesday after the all-star break and Yzerman's suspicions, obviously, have proven true.

So now what?

The Bolts arguably have been the biggest surprise in the National Hockey League, and with that people have started having their own suspicions about how far this ride can go. But what about the affable, classy GM? Does Yzerman suspect his team can do more than simply get into the tournament?

I had an idea how he would answer that question and he didn't surprise me. The man is consistent and methodical.

"Our first goal is to make the playoffs. We don't take that for granted. It will be difficult to do, regardless of where we sit today," he said.

"One, we have to stay healthy. That's a challenge. And two, we have to continue to get better. We have 30 games left in the regular season and that's a lot of hockey. Things can change from week to week."

And with that, we have the happy contradiction that is Lightning hockey.

The rapid rise of this franchise is the result of methodical planning and disciplined execution of a blueprint put in place last summer when Yzerman came on board. They took their time to get the second-best record in the Eastern Conference in a hurry, if you get my drift. People have noticed, starting with the players in the room.

"As a player, this has been so much fun. I'm proud to be a Lightning again," Marty St. Louis said. "The last two or three years were hard."

It's always helpful to look back, if only to see how far you've come. From here on though, it's all about staying on course to build long-term success while also staying in the success of the moment. That's another happy contradiction this team has embraced.

"For us right now, it's about our habits. That's what success is - creating good habits, then holding on to and perfecting them," Coach Guy Boucher said.

Playing really good teams is about to become a habit. Tonight, the Bolts get the East's top team, Philadelphia. Washington, no doubt surprised to be looking up at the Bolts this late into the season, visits Friday.

Ten of their next 16 games are against teams that currently would qualify for the playoffs, and two more are against opponents right on the cusp. By the time that stretch ends in early March, a more complete picture of this Bolts team should have emerged.

With the all-star break behind them, it's a two-month grind to get to the playoffs.

Now the real fun begins.

"I always feel like the intensity rises with deadlines. Your first 20 games, you're trying to win but you don't feel the pressure of where you are in the standings," St. Louis said. "Now, things are starting to shake a certain way. The games keep piling on and you're getting closer to that 82nd game. The intensity is increasing."

It's what veterans do.

"The longer they're in the league, the more they learn how to do that. For younger guys, the question becomes, 'How do I maintain fitness and get better?' " Yzerman said.

"As a rookie or someone in the league a couple of years, you find that when you get to the playoffs you say, 'Oh my goodness, we have to do the playoffs now?' That's a whole different challenge. The intensity is cranked up and the really good teams get better. That's what we have to do, even after a promising first 50 games."

So we wait to see how this surprising and increasingly interesting season unfolds. For Boucher, though, there's no looking ahead or behind. Turn to the hallowed book of clichés, Chapter 1, Verse 1. It's all about tonight, and the next night, and so on.

Say it with me: One day at a time.

"As far as I'm concerned we start back 0-0," Boucher said.

That's good coach speak, even if the standings say something else. Yzerman had a suspicion they might.

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