Lightning open with best mark in 11-year existence

Electric start

Posted: Wednesday, October 23, 2002

NEW YORK -- A young, energetic team that's tired of missing the playoffs was on display at Madison Square Garden.

Nope, not the New York Rangers -- the Tampa Bay Lightning, who skated off with a victory Monday night to stay unbeaten.

The Lightning are off to the best start in the 11-year-old franchise's history: 4-0-1. It's quite a showing for a team that has reached the playoffs only once, in 1996.

''I just like the way that we're playing,'' forward Tim Taylor said after Monday's 4-2 win over the Rangers. ''We're gelling on the ice as a team. We're playing so well.''

The 33-year-old Taylor and 39-year-old captain Dave Andreychuk are veterans on a team led by younger talent.

The Lightning have the NHL's fifth-youngest lineup with an average age of 26.7. Tampa Bay has nine regulars that are 25 or younger, including seven of its 12 main forwards.

''Their first contracts are over and it's time to go,'' said Andreychuk, one of only four players over 29. ''The attitude that everybody has taken is: 'There are no more excuses that we're too young.' We're not expected to do it, and I think we're putting pressure on ourselves to go out and battle every night.''

Martin St. Louis scored twice and added an assist Monday as the Lightning had three power-play goals and rallied to beat New York. Tampa Bay has scored at least four goals in all but one game and leads the league with 24.

Coming from behind is nothing new to this bunch: They have trailed in four of their five games. Dating to last season's Olympics break, Tampa Bay has rallied for a tie or victory in 16 of its last 29 games.

The newfound offense and Nikolai Khabibulin's stellar goaltending (14 goals in five games) have the Lightning shocking everybody but themselves.

''Whoever's picking the Lightning last ... I don't think is doing his homework,'' said St. Louis, who leads the team with nine points.

Not too many people expected a lot from the Lightning, coming off a season in which they finished with the third-fewest points in the Eastern Conference (69). They also scored only 178 goals last season, worst in the East.

''I think there's more confidence through the team. We showed to ourselves that we can play,'' Khabibulin said. ''We're working hard and we can score goals now. In the locker room, all the guys are sticking together for one another and it's the same on the ice.''

Khabibulin is a workhorse, posting a 2.36 goals-against average while playing in 70 of 82 games last season. Since arriving in March 2001, he is 23-4-4-3 when the Lightning score at least three goals.

''Khabibulin has given us a chance to win every game,'' St. Louis said. ''This year we're helping him out so far, scoring-wise. Last year, if he gave up two goals, we were having a tough time winning games. Right now we're getting everybody to contribute.''

That will be put the test while the Lightning are without their brightest young star, 22-year-old center Vincent Lecavalier. He sprained his right knee in Saturday's 3-3 tie at Pittsburgh. Lecavalier, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1998 draft, is expected to be out up to two weeks.

He had three goals and four assists in the first three games. In the one-plus games without him, the Lightning have a win and a tie.

''Everybody chipped in, and when that's happening and you have a major injury like we've had with Vinny and you get it done, it's a good sign,'' third-year coach John Tortorella said.

''It's five games into the year, and we're going to go day-to-day here and just keep plugging along and see where we go.''

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