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Bolts 'D' developing a reputation together

PHILADELPHIA -- With all due respect to Butch and Sundance, who are these guys?

Castoffs to be sure, underachievers too and, of course, the ever-popular late-bloomers.

Doesn't sound like the defensive recipe for a Stanley Cup does it?

But while the Tampa Bay defense may not get the face time on game highlights or local billboards or in newspaper columns that their more popular colleagues up front might, they have quietly given the Lightning their first real chance at their first-ever Stanley Cup championship.

It took only one game in the Eastern Conference final for Philadelphia Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock to tell his team they'd better come up with a new offensive game plan, that the Tampa defense was simply too strong down the middle to allow quality chances from the slot.

Mark Recchi called it the "five-goalie" defense, a nod to the overall team concept embraced by the Lightning, but also a well-deserved kudos to a self-effacing blue-line crew that sometimes refers to itself as "a bunch of rejects."

The group helped shave 18 goals off the team's old goals-against record to produce a franchise-low 192, prompting NHL coaches and scouts to call it one of the most underrated in the league.

Notwithstanding the Game 2 debacle in which the Lightning were pounded 6-2, (hey, it took the faceless bounty hunters tracking Robert Redford and Paul Newman the better part of two hours to get the job done), this equally anonymous, underrated group has been quietly spectacular throughout the first month of the playoffs, allowing a league-low 18 goals in 12 games while chipping in one goal and 15 points.

"Maybe we don't get a lot of recognition," allowed Cory Sarich, a former top Buffalo Sabres prospect who got lost in the shuffle and arrived in Tampa via a trade deadline deal in 2000. "I think it affects each of us differently. Personally, I could really care less."

"I don't think we necessarily use it as motivation as a group," added Jassen Cullimore, claimed off waivers from the Montreal Canadiens in January 1998. "We just know what we have to do."

Vincent Lecavalier we know. Martin St. Louis, ditto. Dave Andreychuk, Fredrik Modin, Cory Stillman, Brad Richards. All players with profile. All forwards.

The defense, well, let's just say the Lightning public relations staff is often called upon for identification purposes.

And that's the way they like it.

"We kind of laugh about it in the room," Brad Lukowich said.

Lukowich arrived from Dallas where he played for Hitchcock and was part of the Stars' 1999 Stanley Cup winning team, although he didn't play enough games to warrant an inscription on the chalice. He was acquired for a second-round pick in June 2002. This season he finished seventh in the NHL with a plus-29 rating.

Dan Boyle couldn't crack the Florida Panthers' lineup and was brought aboard for a fifth-round draft pick in January 2002.

"He's just a great player," said Lukowich of Boyle, who led the Lightning defense in scoring during the regular season and has added five more postseason points.

Pavel Kubina, the team's most talented rearguard, was a seventh-round pick, 179th overall.

According to Tortorella, management discussed moving Sarich and Kubina in recent years, once again proving that some of the best deals are the ones that are never made.

"Kubina was absolutely -- he was put in some tough spots out here at such a young age," Tortorella said. "Goaltending is the most important position, playing defense in the National Hockey League is the most difficult, and you just never know when they are going to mature.

"Now I think Kubina and a Sarich are beginning to mature, and they are still young men in this game. You need to have a little patience at that position and allow it to develop. This is an organization that's never really had the huge payroll, and we have to develop within."

Then there's Nolan Pratt, a spare part in Colorado and deemed expendable by the Bolts after last season. Tortorella suggested the team bring him back to provide depth, and now he's taking a regular shift for the injured Cullimore (wrist).

"Nolan Pratt is a great example," Tortorella said. "We put him out in the pasture at end of this year. No one wanted him. We talked to Jay [Feaster, Lightning GM] about trying to bring him back just for a depth guy because we are not going to be able to spend the big money for top D. Pratt has come in here, and with Cullimore's injury, has stepped in and done a terrific job for us. It's a matter of developing and allowing them to develop."

Perhaps because they lack a profile outside hockey circles, the unit is perceived as being young and small, yet Cullimore is 31, Boyle is 27, Lukowich is 27, and Sydor 31. And only Boyle, at 5-foot-11, is less than six feet tall.

"I think they have realized the only way they, and we, can succeed, is to do it together, and that's the whole teaching process we've gone through," Tortorella said. "It's not individual defense. It's a team defense. I think they have really bought into that.

"They know that's the only way we can succeed is by doing it as a group."

Although they possess a wide range of ability, they all take their turns in an attacking style.

They are also extremely tight-knit. The group keeps track of penalty-killing results during practice -- and the loser has to get juice for his mates.

"There's lots of jabbing going on. There's always lots of fun. We all get along well off the ice," said Sarich.

"It's about maturity, it's about learning the game and it's about having the right coaching staff," said Cullimore who never doubted he had a future in the game, even when the Canadiens had given up on him.

"It was just a matter of time and working on things you needed to work on," Cullimore added. "I think the rest of the guys would say the same thing."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.