Playoff feel in battle of East contenders

TAMPA, Fla. -- On a night when the folks at the St. Pete Times Forum were treated to playoff-type hockey two months before the real thing, the Philadelphia Flyers and Tampa Bay Lightning left the same sheet of ice feeling pretty good about themselves.

The Flyers finally beat the pesky Bolts this season, as Kimmo Timonen's shootout winner was the difference in a 4-3 thriller Tuesday night. Meanwhile, the Lightning wrapped up a season series against the top club in the East earning seven out of a maximum eight points and pronouncing themselves to be legitimate contenders.

Everyone goes home happy.

"If I'm down on the guys, I'm not a very bright man," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said after his team's loss. "The one thing I am is very proud of our guys, extremely proud. That's a top team and we didn't lose against those guys in regulation this season. We were up for the challenge."

Riding down the elevator from the press box with Flyers GM Paul Holmgren, I asked him about finally beating the Bolts. He didn't hesitate in calling the Lightning the real deal, a tough team to beat.

"They're good, they're not going anywhere," echoed victorious Flyers goalie Brian Boucher. "They've got a good system, they've got speed, they work hard and their top two lines can score; their third line is energetic. They're a tough team to play against. [Dwayne] Roloson has been solid for them. They're good everywhere. They're going to be there in the playoffs."

And yet, you could tell from the serious looks at this morning's pregame skate that the Flyers were determined to leave here with two points. Getting swept four games in the season series was not something they wanted in the back of their mind come playoff time should both teams meet again.

"You want to have a win against them," said Boucher, who stopped 24 of 27 shots. "The games have been close. They're a team with firepower, we're a team with firepower."

The Lightning battled back from a 3-1 deficit to earn a point Tuesday night, once again showing they can play with the Flyers.

"It's not just Philly. I just think overall during the year, we're a very disciplined team, we play well as a team," Bolts captain Vincent Lecavalier said. "We do the little things right to be a better team and I think it's paying off."

Tampa Bay also won in Vancouver this season against the Western Conference leaders. At some point, those who are waiting for a Lightning collapse may just want to give up on that thought.

"We're a team that has shown it can battle extremely hard against the top teams, but we're still the battling team that has to remember we're not going to overpower anybody," Guy Boucher said. "We're just going to be relentless, keep the games close and continue the kind of effort that's allowed us some success so far."

Lecavalier, in particular, stood out Thursday night, scoring his 13th goal of the season and playing 21:49. I wrote about him earlier this season and wondered what a bonus it would be if he could recapture some of his old form. He has, and that's a major reason why the Bolts are not going away. "He's been like that for a month," said Boucher.

The coach explained the Lightning have their own plus-minus system, a net worth of a player: If he contributes on a scoring chance, it's a plus-1; if the player contributes to a scoring chance for the other team, it's a minus-1.

"In the last 10 games, [Lecavalier] was by far our top guy," Boucher said. "Just the last five games, he was plus-18 in our rankings. He's bought into what this team and this organization stands for and he's been a real good leader for us. That's a real good step."

On the Flyers' side, James van Riemsdyk was very effective. He had the Gordie Howe hat trick (a goal, an assist and a fight) and looked dangerous for most of the night.

It was interesting to see him have that kind of game after the Flyers reportedly turned down Toronto's trade request for him in the Kris Versteeg deal.

"Maybe a little weight off my shoulders," said van Riemsdyk, who admitted that he heard the Toronto trade chatter. "I definitely want to be here. I really want to make it work here."

Versteeg, meanwhile, looked more at ease as the game went on in his Flyers debut, playing as expected alongside Mike Richards on the third line. Richards patted him on the shoulder on the way to the visitors dressing room after the game as Versteeg spoke to the media.

"I settled down in the second period and third period and felt pretty good," Versteeg said. "It was good to get a win, first game as a Flyer, especially."

While the Flyers' first-place act rolls into Florida on Wednesday night, the Bolts will need to regroup for another huge test: the Detroit Red Wings.

"They've been the standard in our league for the last 12-15 years," Boucher said. "There's going to be quite a challenge Thursday that's waiting for us."