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Tampa Bay Lightning hope to take step forward, become championship contender

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TAMPA, Florida — Jon Cooper wants his Tampa Bay Lightning to know something about heightened expectations. They don't mean anything unless you prove you're as good as you think you can be.

The young team led by Steven Stamkos posted the third-best record in the Eastern Conference a year ago, and Cooper is among those who believe the club is capable of contending for the Stanley Cup title this season.

The coach, beginning his second full season behind the bench in Tampa Bay, just doesn't want his players to get too caught up in what's being said and/or written about their prospects for success.

"You don't have a right to make the playoffs. It's not a given you're in," said Cooper, who replaced former coach Guy Boucher in March 2013 and helped the Lightning rebound from having the 28th-worst record in the league to go 51-35-2 finish last season.

"We have to realize it's going to be tougher this year," Stamkos agreed. "I know the expectations are higher, but we're not going to surprise anyone. In that regard, we can use that as motivation."

Stamkos missed 45 games, as well as Canada's gold-medal run in the Olympics last winter, yet the 24-year-old still was able to lead Tampa Bay to its first playoff appearance since 2011.

The two-time All-Star delivered 25 goals and 40 points in 37 games, and his absence from early November to just before a late-season trade sent Martin St. Louis to the New York Rangers created unexpected opportunities for young players such as Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, who helped the Lightning stay afloat without its star.

Meanwhile, goaltender Ben Bishop set franchise records for victories (37), save percentage (.924) and goals-against average (2.23) before a left elbow injury sidelined him for the final week of the regular season and the playoffs, where Tampa Bay was swept by Montreal in the opening round.

Ryan Callahan, obtained in the deal that sent St. Louis to the Rangers, returns for a full season after re-signing as a free agent. General manager Steve Yzerman has also brought in Brian Boyle, Anton Stralman, Brendan Morrow, Jason Garrison and backup goalie Evgeni Nabokov in hopes of strengthening the team defensively.

"It's not how many goals we score, it's how many we keep out of the net," Cooper said.

"We like to think we're an improved team," Yzerman added. "But we've got to do it on the ice."


Some things to watch as the Lightning prepare for a year the team is hopeful will end with a strong post-season run:

IMPRESSIVE TURNAROUND: The Lightning tied the franchise record for wins in a season in 2013-14, finishing with 101 points — tied most in team history.

SCORING MACHINE: Stamkos has scored more goals than any NHL player since the start of the 2009-10 season with 210. He's led the league in goals-scored twice and also ranked second in points two times. Despite missing more than half of last season, he still led the team with nine power-play goals.

MORE FIREPOWER: Palat led the team with 59 points last season. Johnson, another first-year player, set a club record for rookies with 24 goals. In all, Tampa Bay's rookies combined for 201 points, more than twice as many for first-year players from any other team. Palat led all NHL rookies with 44 points after Jan. 1.

PLENTY OF LEADERSHIP: Stamkos, who was named captain last season, says there's no shortage of leadership on the roster, noting that Callahan was a captain in New York before being acquired from the Rangers and that Boyle, Stralman and Morrow also are established veterans who bring grit and playoff experience. "It's not a one-man show here," Stamkos said. "It's by committee. That makes it easier on me that way."

TALK IS CHEAP: Yzerman likes the roster he's put together, but says it too early to talk about what this year's team might be capable of accomplishing. "We're optimistic," the Hall of Famer said, "but it takes time" for changes for gel.

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