'Bolts leaning on rookie coach

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:17 PM ET

Steven Stamkos is honest about it. Coming off a breakthrough season in which he scored 51 goals, the first impression of new coach Guy Boucher last summer and into training camp was a little jarring.

The first point of emphasis was to be responsible in the neutral and defensive zones, hardly the areas that made Stamkos one of the league's up-and-coming stars.

It didn't take long for the 21-year-old and the rest of the Lightning players, young and old, to see that this unproven but innovative rookie NHL coach might be on to something.

"The buy-in happened from day one," said Stamkos, who regressed offensively in his second season but now considers himself a much more complete player.

"Sometimes as an offensive player, you want to get in there and maybe take some chances and more risks. But you have to realize what's better for the team."

From out of the playoffs to challenging for their division title and now winners of a playoff series for the first time since 2004, for now at least, it appears Boucher knows what's best.

Fresh off a mild upset against the Pittsburgh Penguins in a seven-game comeback that wrapped up on Wednesday, Boucher doesn't have much time to refine his genius for the next opponent.

The Lightning get right down to business Friday night in Washington where they face Alex Ovechkin and the rested Capitals in an Eastern Conference semifinal.

There was some risk in the approach of Boucher, the first major hire by rookie Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman.

How would the team's veterans such as Martin St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier take to a guy who a year earlier was coaching the Hamilton Bulldogs in the American Hockey League?

Former Montreal Canadiens star and now coach of the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Patrick Roy, has been critical of Boucher, saying his 1-3-1 system has been copied by so many coaches in the "Q" that it is ruining the game. Would elite level professionals pay attention?

Boucher's approach seems to be working. The system, which Boucher used in Drummondville as a junior coach and then with the AHL Bulldogs is essentially a more aggressive version of the old trap.

It has been described as having the first forechecker attempting to fend off the puck carrier followed by three forecheckers in the middle to aggressively continue the pursuit. It is designed, among other things, to force turnovers which is where the Lightning get dangerous as a quick team in transition.

The Boucher way may not be for everyone. It can be as hard on the eyes as it is for opponents to penetrate as we saw often in the Lightning's 4-3 series win over Pittsburgh. The Penguins struggled to gain the zone throughout, a challenge that we can expect the Capitals to be more capable of solving.

The Lightning had to work hard to grasp some of Boucher's system, but the master motivator in him helped that process.

"We bought in in training camp," St. Louis said following Game 7 in Pittsburgh. "I bought in earlier than that, in the summer. He met a lot of us.

"He is a positive guy and he likes to debate things but he wants us all to be on the same page. He's a well-prepared coach and his psychology background helps."

Yes, psychology is a part of it (Boucher earned a master's degree in sports psychology from the University of Montreal) and the coach played that game a little bit on Thursday as his team touched down in D.C.

Asked about the daunting task of facing their Southeast Division rival and the top seed in the Eastern Conference, Boucher made it sound like the new kids on the block will need a miracle to compete.

"We're the little naggers biting at their ankles," Boucher told reporters in Washington. "It's Goliath against David, so better get our slingshots ready."

The Capitals and coach Bruce Boudreau aren't buying it, of course. The secret is out. The challenge ahead is to solve it.


Videos

Photos