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Lightning, Avs and Blues among notables

The NHL's regular season is roughly one-fourth finished, flying perhaps under the radar with most sports fans fixated on the NFL and others focusing on the NBA, college football and basketball.

Here's a look at five things you've might have missed as the NHL hits the quarter pole:

LIGHTNING STRIKES: Tampa Bay has been at or near the top of the Eastern Conference after failing to make the playoffs in each of the last two seasons.

''Our goaltending has been good and we've had a balanced attack offensively,'' Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Thursday before his team tried to win in San Jose to stop a season-long losing streak at two games. ''Our young guys have been contributing, and our coaching has been excellent.''

Tampa Bay took a hit last week when leading scorer Steven Stamkos suffered a broken leg, knocking him out of the lineup indefinitely.

''People were just, maybe, beginning to say, `Wow, these guys are for real,''' coach Jon Cooper said. ''Then 91 goes down, all of a sudden everybody is watching us. Everybody is waiting for the slipper to fall off the foot. That was our big message to the guys. We can be looked at as a one-man team or looked at as a team.

''I think the guys took a little bit of ownership with that.''

The Lightning with lean on Martin St. Louis, who had 21 points in his first 21 games, and newcomer Valtteri Filppula, who has so far successfully replaced Vincent Lecavalier, on offense and Ben Bishop between the pipes. The 27-year-old goaltender has made the most of his first opportunity to play regularly. Bishop is off to such a strong start that he has worked his way onto the radar for a spot on Team USA in the upcoming Winter Olympics.

COACHING CHANGES: Even though there's a lot of hockey left to play this season, some teams have chosen to fire their coaches in the hopes of sparking a change with interim leaders.

The Buffalo Sabres fired Ron Rolston last week - along with general manager Darcy Reiger - and put Ted Nolan back behind their bench after their worst 20-game start in franchise history. Nolan led the Sabres from 1995-97.

The Florida Panthers ran out of patience with the only coach to help them win a division title, firing Kevin Dineen earlier this month. Florida, which won the Southeast Division in 2012, is giving Peter Horachek, who was coaching the Panthers' AHL team, a shot to see if he can make a difference.

The Philadelphia Flyers were the first team in the league to fire a coach, letting Peter Laviolette walk after three games - just three years after he led them to the Stanley Cup finals. With promoted assistant Craig Berube, the Flyers had won four of five games going into Thursday night's matchup at home with Buffalo.

''A couple weeks ago, we were down and we weren't getting bounces,'' Philadelphia forward Wayne Simmonds said. ''Times have turned, we are starting to get bounces and now we are getting more confident.''

AVALANCHE RUN: If the playoffs started after 20-plus games instead of 82, the Colorado Avalanche would be postseason bound for the first time since 2010. Rookie coach and former goalie great Patrick Roy has made all the right moves. Roy has been rotating a pair of netminders, Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere, with success. Like the Lightning, the Avs have been playing without their top scorer. Matt Duchene, who had a team-high 20 points entering Thursday night's game at Phoenix, is expected to return relatively soon from an oblique injury.

WEST VS. EAST: Before play on Thursday night, eight teams in the Western Conference had 30 points and the East had none. The Minnesota Wild, playing up to their potential with Zach Parise and Ryan Suter perhaps getting more comfortable in their second season with the franchise, are in quite a four-team race in the Central Division with Chicago, St. Louis and Colorado to get to and stay in first place.

STEEN SHINES: St. Louis and former Toronto Maple Leafs center Alexander Steen has always been a solid player, scoring at least 15 goals - and as many as 24 - in six previous seasons and contributing at least 42 points in half of his previous eight years in the league. This season, Steen has been simply spectacular. He went into Thursday night's game at Boston with 17 goals to share the NHL lead with Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin, and 26 points to trail only Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby in the league.


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The Associated Press News Service

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The Associated Press
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