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roy macgregor

Oooooops …

Must have got turned around in the elevator coming down from the press box.

This can't be the dressing room of the team that, on Thursday night in Ottawa, took over the NHL lead in road wins with a 4-3 victory over the lowly Senators.

That victory by the Tampa Bay Lightning in Ottawa was followed on Saturday by the team's 22nd road win of the year – tying a franchise record – when the Lightning came from behind to defeat the Montreal Canadiens 4-3 in a shootout.

Monday night, the team that now sits atop the entire NHL standings will play host to the Toronto Maple Leafs at Amalie Arena in Tampa.

You would expect, then, a happier group that sat in the visitors' dressing room on Thursday night in Ottawa silently staring at their knees.

Steven Stamkos, the captain and usually designated talker, would only point to a grease board that held the numbers of those allowed (or forced) to speak: No. 9, Tyler Johnson, who opened the scoring; No. 77, Victor Hedman, who scored the second goal; and backup goaltender Louis Domingue, who held the Senators at bay in the dying moments of the third period.

And that, Hedman says, is the point. Up 4-1 heading into the third, the Lightning should never have had to scramble to finish, barely getting the win.

"We played scared out there," he says. "We have got to find a way to be consistent for 60 minutes.

"You can't really pat yourself on the shoulder after a game like that."

In Montreal, it was almost a repeat: Tampa's Ryan Callahan scoring on a third-period power play to tie the game with Brayden Point sealing the two points in a shootout.

That put the Lightning three-for-three on their road trip – they earlier defeated the Washington Capitals 4-2 – and yet, they seemed dissatisfied. Hedman said they played "scared," which might be a tad harsh, but the Lightning certainly play as if they have something to prove.

A year ago, Tampa Bay surprisingly missed the playoffs, something that should inspire both the Canadiens and the Senators, two Canadian teams that went from spectacular highs a year ago – the Canadiens finished first in the Atlantic Division, the Senators came within an overtime goal of reaching the Stanley Cup final – to utter disaster this year.

Hockey people with vested interests like to call such events "blips." The classic reference is to the 1995-96 Colorado Avalanche. Seen as a rising power when they were the Quebec Nordiques, the team inexplicably slipped in 1993-94, changed coaches, changed cities the following year – and fist-pumped their earlier promise by winning the Stanley Cup in their first season in Denver.

Blips, however, can run in both directions.

Coaches invariably point to injuries to explain downturns – and certainly last year's Lightning, with Stamkos appearing in only 17 games, can make that argument – but the more critical element is goaltending.

Last year, both the Senators and Canadiens had fabulous goaltending – Montreal's Carey Price was regularly called the best goaltender in the game. This year, both teams have been mediocre at best in net.

In 1996, the Avalanche had Patrick Roy in goal, thanks to a December meltdown in which Roy, then the Canadiens' No. 1 netminder, declared "It's my last game in Montreal" after coach Mario Tremblay left him in for nine goals against the Detroit Red Wings. One lopsided trade later and the Avalanche were the team of the future and the Canadiens left in the past.

In Tampa Bay's case, the story is Andrei Vasilevskiy, a 23-year-old Russian who leads all NHL goaltenders in wins with 35. Six years ago, the Lightning bet that the skinny teenager from Tyumen, Russia, was worth drafting 19th in the opening round.

If goaltending is the most visible evidence of team success, managing is the most subtle. Steve Yzerman has four Stanley Cups and three Olympic gold medals, two as a manager, to his credit. Having "trained" as a manager with the Red Wings, he finally got to run his own team in 2010 when he went to Tampa, and the results have been impressive, even despite last year's falter.

Under Yzerman's watch, the team re-signed Stamkos to a long-term deal when it was thought the star might seek a larger fortune on the open market. Hedman, who was also there when Yzerman arrived, has evolved into a Norris Trophy candidate and one of the league's top defencemen.

When Tampa Bay had a falling out with promising young centre Jonathan Drouin, drafted third over all in 2013, Yzerman struck a deal with Montreal to send him north in exchange for young defenceman Mikhail Sergachev. Still only 19, the towering Russian is fast becoming one of the top young defenders in the league – something Montreal now desperately needs.

Yzerman's best move, however, may have had nothing to do with players. In the spring of 2013, fed up with the team's defensive style, he fired head coach Guy Boucher – now head coach of the defensively obsessed and stumbling Ottawa Senators – and put Jon Cooper in charge of the bench.

If an undrafted player such as Johnson can somehow become an NHL regular, that story is nothing compared to Cooper's: a native of Prince George who went to a U.S. college on a lacrosse scholarship, who took up law and spent more than a decade as a public defender, who did a friendly judge a favour by agreeing to coach his son's high-school hockey team – and eventually wound his way through various minor leagues to reach the NHL.

Some of it may be luck – hockey, after all, is a game of bounces – but whatever explains the new fortunes of the Tampa Bay Lightning, it has them thinking this year they may well have a chance to challenge for the Stanley Cup, something they did successfully 14 years ago in the pre-Yzerman years.

Still, they are clearly not yet satisfied. With the trade deadline upon everyone, Lightning players are openly wondering if Yzerman might strike a last-minute deal to add one more piece to the puzzle. They did not fail to notice how Ottawa captain Erik Karlsson – rumoured all week to now be available – dropped in on the Tampa coaches and equipment handlers before spending long minutes in a postgame huddle with Hedman.

"It's all hearsay," Stamkos said. "The thing I'm excited about is we put ourselves in a position to be a buyer."

"It's always more exciting when you're on the top than on the bottom," Johnson added.

No kidding. Just ask the players in the other dressing room.

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