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Lightning Bring Home the Gold Written by Laci Bloomers - November 30th, -0001

The Tampa Bay Lightning gave their fans a reason to smile recently as they shocked the hockey world by bring home Gold in the 1st Annual Invitational Summer Classic tournament in the CMHL.

With the completion of a new roster, farm development system, and the uncertainty that goes with it having taken place over the summer, the club was anxious to see how their new group would produce.  When the idea of this annual tournament came to fruition, it looked to provide the look the team management wanted, prior to pre-season and the start of the regular season.

Pitted in Pool A against the best of the CMHL last season, and sitting only 5th seed, the club played a tight defensive game, riding a couple of pretty good goaltenders as they led the way as the tightest team in the tournament.

Putting together a 7-2-1 record in their 10 games, goaltenders Tim Thomas and Robert Esche established themselves as a bonafide starter and a very solid back-up.  The pair combined for a stingy 2.17 Goals Against Average, coupled with a save percentage of almost 91%.

Esche was one of three goaltenders to earn a shutout. The back-up, who is expected to play about 30 games in what will be his final CMHL season, lead all goaltenders with a sparkling 1.30 GAA and .947 save percentage in his 3 games.

Thomas shone in the Medal rounds, picking up wins over rival Buffalo in the opening game, and then holding the fort in the Gold Medal 3-2 overtime win over the Los Angeles Kings.

Thomas finished the tournament with a 2.55 GAA, a number he would be happy with during the regular season.  The late bloomer is getting his first opportunity as a starter in this league, and he feels with Esche in the fold he will only get better as the season goes on.  "Eschie has been a star in the CMHL in his time here, and he has been very forthcoming with advice.  I don't think of our team as having a #1 and #2, but rather two #1 goaltenders.  He will puch me to be better so that hopefully I can get in at least 45 to 50 quality starts this season." noted Thomas when interviewed by this reporter.

While there were concerns about the club being able to put enough pucks in the net, they did finish the tournament with 31 goals in 10 games, and netted 4 players with a point per game or better. The trio of Mike Modano, Richard Zednik and Jere Lehtinen really stood out, as all 3 players averaged a point per game or better.  Modano finished second in the tournament with 14 points, including a leading 12 assists.  Zednik's 7 goals tied him for the tournament lead, while he and Lehtinen each picked up 10 points.  The 34 points by that line was among the best in the tournament.

The group of Radek Bonk, Alex Radulov and Jonathan Cheechoo looked very good at times also, especially earlier in the tournament.  Although Radulov did not put up great numbers, Bonk had 10 points while Cheechoo finished with 8.

Mark Giordano might have earned himself a spot on the roster, as he got in the final 7 games and showed he could potentially be the power play QB the club needs.  Giordano picked up 4 assists while finishing as a + player in the tournament.  Phillipe Boucher also finished with 4 points to tie Giordano for the lead among the team's blueliners.  One concern for the club was that the 8 defencemen used only managed a pair of goals between them, and more production will be expected from the point.

Perhaps the most important thing to come out of the tournament was that the club dressed 26 position players in total, providing a chance for several players to be noticed.  Some surprises emerged, including the lesser roles played by both Paul Gaustad and Zach Stortini, both of whom were expected to make the team.  Pual Ranger, also considered a favourite on the blueline, was limited to 5 games as well.  Along with Giordano, forwards Toby Peterson and Barry Tallackson received good looks, while Sheldon Brookbank, Wade Brookbank, Andrew Murray, Simon Gamache and Jordan Leopold all got in to at least 1 game.

It is expected that the club will use the upcoming preseason to give a few of the farm players a better chance to show what they can do, and that many of the veterans will play reduced roles as the season draws nearer.

In any event, the Gold Medal has raised the bar in Tampa Bay regarding team expectations for the upcoming season.

- Laci Bloomers reporting -


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