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Shortened NHL season puts premium on each game

Lightning players work out Monday during practice at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon after the NHL lockout ends.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Lightning players work out Monday during practice at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon after the NHL lockout ends.

BRANDON — If anything good comes out of the NHL lockout, it might actually be the shortened 48- or 50-game schedule.

Purists will hate it because, to them, it won't be the physical and mental test of the normal 82-game slog.

But think about it: Fewer games means teams might not have time to regroup after extended losing streaks. Leaving points on the ice through shootouts will be maddening instead of just annoying. Consistency will be key as will a ferociously fast start.

As Lightning forward Adam Hall said, "I don't think you can hold anything back."

"The intensity of the games is going to be extremely high," coach Guy Boucher said. "You're going to see some physicality. You're going to see guys battling with everything they've got."

That is why Boucher said scrimmages will take the place of skating and passing drills at training camp to build endurance and get players quickly in the battling frame of mind.

It is why the team is contemplating moving training camp out of town to facilitate player bonding with a road-trip atmosphere.

It also is why defenseman Sami Salo, sitting at his locker, sweating profusely, said Monday's skate, the day after the league and Players' Association forged a tentative agreement on a new collective bargaining that ended the lockout, was a little more intense than those that had come before.

"Everybody wants to be here," wing Marty St. Louis said, raising his hand above his head. "The team that's going to get here quicker and maintain, those are the teams that are going to be on top, so I hope we get there quick."

For Boucher, that is especially important considering, as he said, "Everybody in our division improved or stayed the same."

Indeed, the Southeast Division might be one of the league's most interesting.

The Panthers, coming off a division title, added defenseman and former Lightning Filip Kuba. The Jets last season gave Tampa Bay all kinds of trouble. The Hurricanes are drastically improved after adding forwards Alexander Semin and Jordan Staal and defenseman Tomas Kaberle. The Capitals lost Semin but added center Mike Ribiero.

"Whether it's a 50-game season or a 48-game season, you can't afford to take a couple of weeks off," center Steven Stamkos said. "You have to kill losing streaks quick and try to maintain winning streaks because if you have a good couple of weeks that could be the difference between making the playoffs and being out of the playoffs."

Case in point, Stamkos said, the Stanley Cup champion Kings, who needed a late-season 9-2-3 run just to claim the Western Conference's final playoff spot.

"In a shortened season," Stamkos said, "they would have missed the playoffs."

Look, Boucher said, "there are going to be ups and downs like every season but you don't want a down that will last too long because you'll probably be out of the playoffs. The players are aware of it. We're aware of it. But I think it's going to be good for the fans because every game means so much."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@tampabay.com.

Shortened NHL season puts premium on each game 01/07/13 [Last modified: Monday, January 7, 2013 11:52pm]
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