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Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Chris O'Meara (Chris O'Meara)
Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Chris O'Meara (Chris O'Meara)

NHL Weekend

How the Lightning perfected the art of winning Add to ...

It's an off-day, but the practice jerseys are dark with sweat nevertheless.

Near one faceoff dot, future Hockey Hall of Famer Martin St. Louis is doing pushups because his line lost out in a transition drill that was also a mini-competition between the players executing it.

A little while later, after a short whistle blast, gassed gazillionaire NHLers sprint to the head coach's white board, where a young man with a peeved expression starts diagramming madly.

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Welcome to Guy Boucher's world - where no detail is too small, no effort is spared, and no matter how intense you fancy yourself to be, you won't match the nuclear-accident smoulder of the man in charge.

"It's always like this," Tampa Bay Lighting captain Vincent Lecavalier said recently, still sweating after a recent practice at Montreal's Bell Centre. "From day 1."

The Lightning coach is clearly a taskmaster when it comes to practice time, but Boucher, who has to be considered among the contenders for the Jack Adams Award in his maiden NHL season, is not your typical hard-ass coach.

For one thing, he gives his players more vacation days during the season than just about any other bench boss.

"He's great when it comes to days off, and realizing the rest and recovery that players need. But when you come to the rink for a practice, whether you come for a morning skate, whether you come for a game, you have to come prepared to work," said centre Steven Stamkos, the NHL's leading goal-scorer. "At the beginning of the year, it was more of a feel-out process … [but]you look at where we are in the standings and the coaching staff has a lot to do with that."

The Notre-Dame-du-Lac, Que., native won't turn 40 until August - when's the last time an NHL head coach was younger than his starting goaltender? - and doesn't fit the template of most hockey coaches.

First of all, he's an unreconstructed smarty-pants, with two undergraduate degrees from McGill University - an arts degree in history and a BSc in bioresource engineering - and a masters in applied psychology from the University of Montreal.

He didn't have a spectacularly distinguished playing career (five years in Canadian Interuniversity Sport, then short stints in the International Hockey League and France's professional league - his playing days were cut short at 25 by a mysterious illness that nearly killed him). But what Boucher has done is win.

At McGill, as head coach, in Drummondville, Que., as head man of the QMJHL's Voltigeurs, as a Team Canada assistant at the world under-18 and under-20 championships, in the AHL last year with the Hamilton Bulldogs (the Montreal Canadiens farm team).

Hamilton was his first pro job, and it wasn't long before the NHL came calling - he spurned the Columbus Blue Jackets in favour of general manager Steve Yzerman's offer to take over the Lightning.

His coaching methods and aggressive, swarming on-ice tactics - Tampa generally plays an unorthodox 1-3-1 system to outnumber opponents in their defensive zone - are bearing fruit.

Boucher has heard the snorts of derision that his approach wouldn't translate from junior to the AHL and from the AHL to NHL. He didn't care then, and doesn't now.

"I like to dare, I like to be bold in everything I do, not just in hockey, the day I lose that desire to be daring is the day you'll bury me," Boucher said on a recent visit to Montreal.

As the British Special Air Service motto holds: Who dares wins. And Boucher has taken a team that has somehow missed the playoffs for three consecutive years - despite marquee names like Lecavalier, St. Louis and Stamkos - and made it into a contender for the division title and a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference.

Only New Jersey Devils bench boss Jacques Lemaire, as grizzled an old NHL hand as there is, has engineered a more remarkable turnaround in the league this year.

The Lightning have hit a barren patch of late, but that's not going to take the sheen off what has been a remarkable season.

"You come to the rink with a different perspective on things, a different attitude, you're excited and it's contagious when you start winning," Stamkos said. "The last two years for me and the guys who have been here have been tough."

Boucher often says his job is to know individuals, not coach a group, but it also requires a vast amount of learning under trying circumstances.

"I don't think people realize how demanding this league is for the players, both physically and mentally. I don't care how fit you are, how tough you are mentally, it's impossible to have the pedal to the metal every day, at every practice, in every game," he said. "So the trick is to understand when you put the pedal to the floor and when you pull back and let guys relax.

"Rest is a weapon at this level. You can tell when you play back-to-back games, on the second night it feels like you need a miracle to win because the players are exhausted. That's because they give all of what they have every night."

Like his players, Boucher has also been known to drive himself to the point of exhaustion.

Canadiens winger Mathieu Darche, who has known Boucher since they were teenagers and played for him in Hamilton last year, recalls a long postgame bus ride where everyone else was watching a movie or playing cards - Boucher was sitting at the front, rewinding and fast-forwarding through game footage on his laptop.

Coaching is also not so different from parenting, which is why the father of three's face lights up when he's asked about his former Bulldogs charges who have been pressed into service with the Canadiens.

Boucher coached Hamilton to a Calder Cup semi-final berth in 2009-10 - he was the league's coach of the year - and eight of the players he had on that team have played for the injury-ravaged Habs this year.

So it's not that big a stretch to say he feels a form of paternal responsibility for 1 1/2 NHL teams.

"You'd never, ever tell them this," Boucher said with a smile, when asked if he keeps tabs on his former players, "but you do get attached."

Not every NHL coach would admit as much.

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

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