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Tough mountain to climb

Coach John Tortorella says recognizing situations is what the Lightning often lacks late.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 10, 2002

TAMPA -- There is a hump staring the Lightning in the face. Sometimes it looks like a mountain, sometimes a molehill.

Either way, Tampa Bay can't get over it.

We're talking game recognition in crucial situations; knowing the score and clock, reading how plays are developing and acting accordingly.

As far as the Lightning has progressed this season in its defense of the neutral zone and blue line, and in creating offensive chances off turnovers, the team is still killing itself with mental lapses at the most inopportune times.

"It's all recognition skills and that's the most frustrating thing," coach John Tortorella said. "But that's where we are as a club. We cannot get over that hump of recognizing where we are in certain situations."

"Everybody is mad because we know we played good hockey," forward Vinny Prospal said. "We know we play our best games against the best teams. The worst part is we don't get any rewards."

The rewards were there to be taken the past two games as the Lightning had the score tied at 2 into the third period. But defensive mistakes, made because of poor decisions from lack of recognition, doomed otherwise good efforts.

Against the Oilers Wednesday, the Lightning allowed a short-handed goal at the end of a two-on-one rush about 30 seconds after allowing a breakaway that was stopped by goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin. Oilers 3, Lightning 2.

Against the Flyers Friday, no one on the line of Prospal, Brad Richards and Ben Clymer made the right choice as they flooded one side of the defensive zone while two Flyers stood unattended in front of Khabibulin, resulting in Chris Therien's winning goal. Flyers 4, Lightning 2.

"That is the biggest thing," Tortorella said, "reading the ice both with and without the puck. ... We just can't get it done to get the points, and that's the heartache of it all."

To be fair, the Flyers are the best team in the Eastern Conference, and Simon Gagne and Jeremy Roenick are stars who made clutch plays to set up Therien's goal.

Even so, had Richards picked up Roenick, had Prospal gotten back into the play sooner and had Clymer not lost the middle of the ice, Therien's goal probably wouldn't have happened.

"Sometimes it's almost overthinking or overdoing, and that's where I feel a little bit of experience has to come into this, playing within yourself in those situations," Tortorella said.

"It's just being mentally solid," Richards said, "and not having any breakdowns."

Tortorella will try to get that message across before tonight's game against the Predators at the Ice Palace, probably with video review. Then, it is up to the players.

The other side of this equation occurs at the other end of the ice, where the Lightning is starved for goals, especially in the third period, during which it has been outscored 56-43.

Is it any wonder the team is 13-18 in one-goal games?

"I don't know if it's killer instinct we're lacking, but we're not finishing the games the way we want," defenseman Jassen Cullimore said.

Said Tortorella: "Until we get in a situation where those are more infrequent, as far as our breakdowns mentally and positioning in those situations, and also having a little bit of mental toughness and creativity to make big plays in the other end, we're going to hover right here, right where we're at, not winning those games.

"It's not through lack of effort. Is it experience? Sure, a lot of it is experience and understanding. It's knowing where you are on the ice and understanding the situation."

In other words, knowing what it takes to get over the hump.

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