Courtesy of USA TODAY – Kevin Allen

View the “Kevin Allen” Lightning article; courtesy of USA Today[1]

Tampa Bay Lightning coach John Tortorella likes how free agent defenseman Filip Kuba has fit into his lineup except he wishes that Kuba would remove the brakes from his offensive game.

“We want him up the ice as much as he can,” Tortorella said. “We want all of our D up the ice – we want them pinching whenever they can.”

Those words primarily are Tortorella’s attempt to prod his defensemen to play more offense, but if you listen carefully, what you might be hearing is a coach who senses that this Lightning team is evolving into one of the NHL’s most dangerous offenses this season.

The Lightning might be the predator hiding in plain sight in the Eastern Conference. Because of the lockout and last season’s struggles, it has almost been forgotten how dominant this team could be when it won the Stanley Cup in 2003-04.

The team’s Big Three of Vinny Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis[2] and Brad Richards were all performing like they were the stars of the circus when Tampa Bay won that Cup.

But since then, it seems as if they haven’t been able to play well all at the same time. Last season, Richards was the megastar, and St. Louis was the slumping star. Lecavalier was somewhere in between.

This season, St. Louis has rediscovered his verve and Lecavalier looks like he could compete for the scoring title. The two have combined for 35 points in the past 10 games. They both look like they are always one stride away from a breakaway. St. Louis suddenly looks like the most elusive player in the league again, darting, twisting and rocketing up ice with overflowing passion.

Now suddenly this season, Richards hasn’t been as productive as he was last season. This comes after the Lightning gave him a five-year deal $7.8 million a season.

One theory is that Richards’ deal simply removed the pressure from St. Louis, who now seems inexpensive at $5 million.

“But (Richards) is a notorious slow starter,” Tortorella said. “But he has done a lot of good things offensively, too.”

General manager Jay Feaster says he believes Richards “is very close” to re-igniting.

“He beats himself up,” Feaster said. “You can almost see the gears grinding in his head. He’s thinking too much. He’s not just playing. If we can get him going, I like our chances.”

No one is paying any attention to the Lightning and yet they are averaging 3.3 goals a game, and they have scored four or more goals in four consecutive games. Suddenly, they look dangerous again.

Surprising Ryan Craig is expected to be back from injury soon, and the Lightning are getting contributions from Dimitry Afanasenkov, Nikita Alexeev, Eric Perrin and Andreas Karlsson.

“And maybe our most consistent player and our hardest worker every night may be (Ruslan) Fedotenko,” Feaster said. “He’s also added even a bit of a physical presence.”

Defenseman Dan Boyle, their prime puck mover on the blue line, doesn’t have a goal yet, but there is a sense that his game is coming together again. Defenseman Paul Ranger has been a pleasant surprise. On Wednesday, he blocked a Ryan Whitney shot that led directly to the overtime goal.

Meanwhile, Kuba has been one of the best summer free-agent acquisitions, and Tortorella believes that he can even do more. He skates well, and he owns a hard shot. They can see him complementing the Big Three.

Tortorella said Kuba, who came from the Minnesota Wild, simply needs to become comfortable with having the green light to turn it up ice.

“When you play a system like we play, you have to think offense right away,” Tortorella said. “When you hesitate as a defenseman – should I join? – then you are in trouble. We want that to be an instinct.”

The Lightning coaching staff believes that Kuba has the speed to jump into the play and still get back to cover up defensively. If he can enhance his offensive firepower, the Lightning offense could be one of the most dynamic in the East. Not many teams can put together two dangerous scoring lines like Tampa Bay can.

Maybe the Lightning are one defenseman short. But the real difference between this team and the 2004 team is the difference between Nikolai Khabibulin and Marc Denis.

Last season, the Lightning’s struggles clearly involved a lack of confidence in their goalkeeping. Tortorella never hid the fact that he was disappointed with John Grahame and Sean Burke.

The Lightning traded for Marc Denis with the hope that he would provide stability.

“He has given us a chance to win,” Feaster said. “Marc does a good job of controlling his rebounds, and when he plays he looks in control. The guys believe that they will get a solid effort from him. As a result, we have been more aggressive.”

Although Khabibulin was more celebrated than Denis is when he won his first Cup, he was still considered unproven. He had some ups and downs in Tampa Bay.

What Denis has been is solid this season. If Richards starts to surge and the Lightning become as dangerous offensively as they were in 2003-04, then solid might be good enough to give Tampa Bay a chance.

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