Coach likes what he sees now

TAMPA, Fla. -- John Tortorella smiles when he thinks about how bad the Tampa Bay Lightning were when he took over as coach a little more than three years ago.

He remembers the lack of discipline -- on and off the ice, the false sense of accomplishment when the team got an occasional victory against one of the NHL's elite, and his determination to sell a young roster on his belief that the only way to turn things around was one day at a time.

"We won games three and four years ago -- when we won, which was not often -- and it was like we did something within the regular season. And then when you lose, you just feel like a dog," Tortorella recalled.

"I think we have found an understanding that you need to keep an even keel. No matter what people say about you good or bad, when you win or when you're losing, you block that out and just go about your business."

Next week, the Lightning begin their first appearance in the Eastern Conference finals, a testament to how far they have come under Tortorella, who took over in January 2001 -- midway through Tampa Bay's league-record stretch of four consecutive seasons with more than 50 losses (including some in overtime).

Two years later, the franchise won its first division championship and made the playoffs for just second time. The Lightning lost to eventual Stanley Cup champion New Jersey in the second round, but they built on their success and won the Southeast Division again on the way to compiling the best record in the East this season.

Skeptics questioned whether they were as good as their regular-season record, but all the Lightning have done is go 8-1 to eliminate the New York Islanders and the Montreal Canadiens from the playoffs.

They'll meet Philadelphia or Toronto in the East finals. That series is tied 2-2 after the Maple Leafs' 3-1 win Friday night.

"It's a different type pressure this year -- being the hunted and not being under the radar and the hunter as an underdog," Tortorella said. "Our guys feel they can win. Expectations bring on more responsibility. That's the way I think our guys are looking at it."

Nikolai Khabibulin has been the Lightning's best player through the first two rounds. The goaltender's shaky postseason history had been considered a potential liability. However, he has four shutouts and has only allowed nine goals in nine games.

In Tampa Bay's four-game sweep of the Canadiens, including Thursday night's 3-1 clincher in Montreal, Khabibulin stopped 102 of 107 shots, with help from an underrated defense that has elevated its play in the playoffs.

Tortorella says that for the Bolts to have a chance to advance past the conference finals, Khabibulin will have to continue to be their best player. The defense will have to keep playing well in front of him, too, something the coach has preached from Day 1.

"When this staff took over, the main thing we wanted to express was our conditioning, which was awful; the discipline on and off the ice; and learning how to compete defensively. Not turn into a defensive team, because we're not a defensive team, but understand what it is to compete defensively."