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Tampa Bay Lightning

It's a playoff feel from start for Tampa Bay Lightning

Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 09:45 AM

The sprint starts Saturday.

With the season reduced to 48 games, the marathon-like 82-game season spread over six months will be squeezed into 99 days.

From Saturday through the end of the season on April 27, the intensity to fight for a playoff spot will be amped up where each night will have a playoff feel.

That's what the season felt like to some in 1995, when the lockout-shortened season was reduced to 48 games — beginning and ending at almost the same time as this season will.

"What really stood out to me that year was it was like playoffs,'' said Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, a member of the Detroit Red Wings in 1995. "From Day One we played almost every second day and you're always preparing for a game. There's no breaks in the schedule, so it's a playoff kind of atmosphere and it was enjoyable. We played a lot of games, we didn't practice a whole lot, we were always on the go.''

Starting that season felt like stepping into the starting blocks in the 400-meter final at the Olympics without having warmed up — everybody was bunched up at the beginning. And if you fall behind early, odds are there won't be enough time to make up ground.

"Every game is almost like a playoff game and you have to get off to a fast start,'' said former Lightning center Brian Bradley, who was with Tampa Bay in 1995. "Pretty much you have to ride your top players out of the gate and you have to ride them hard because you only have 48 games. And if you get off to a 2-8 start or 3-7 … you are really in trouble. By the time you try to turn it around, your season could be over.''

That's what happened to Tampa Bay in 1995 as the Lightning started 3-5-1 and were out of the playoff picture by March with a 9-15-2 record through 26 games. They finished the season 12th in the 14-team Eastern Conference.

But with the introduction of the loser point — losing in overtime or a shootout still gains a point in the standings — the ability to make up ground this year becomes even more difficult.

"Now with the three-point game, standings are going to be so close I think from start to finish,'' Yzerman said. "So every game takes on even more importance.''

One advantage this year compared to the 1994-95 season is how players kept in shape during the work stoppage. Many players went to Europe to play and others kept large groups together to work out, but those who were playing games could have an early edge.

Dave Andreychuk, who had to leave Toronto after fans harassed him and his family while playing for the Maple Leafs, said he worked out in Buffalo with a number of Sabres' players during the lockout. A shortened training camp did not allow him to be ready to play games.

"I was coming off back-to-back 50-goal seasons, and I struggled, to be honest, I really struggled,'' said Andreychuk, who finished with 22 goals and 38 points. "And I don't care how much I skated in Buffalo, not playing in games, having a quick training camp, it took me a little while to get rolling again.''

All of these factors have been taken into account by Lightning coach Guy Boucher, who has reached out to some who coached during the 1995 season, to his GM and to Andreychuk in trying to formulate a plan for how to handle the 48-game season in which Tampa Bay will play a minimum of three games a week and have no more than two days off between games.

Boucher's message is going to be that this stretch from January to the end of the season is no different than any other.

"Everybody wants it to be more intense, but right now my biggest challenge is going to be to make the players understand, there is no difference … and we are actually in a better position than we were last year because we are not trailing anybody,'' he said.

"This is positive. We decide what kind of perception we want to give, and right now, I like it.''

eerlendsson@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7835 Twitter: @erlendssonTBO

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