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Playoffs still not part of Lightning progress

This week, for the sixth straight time, postseason starts without Tampa Bay.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 16, 2002


TAMPA -- For Lightning coach John Tortorella, the most difficult part of the NHL season is about to begin: watching the playoffs on television.

photo
[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
Brad Richards has led the Lightning in scoring in both of his seasons in the league.
It is not just that the Lightning is going home in April for the sixth consecutive season, tied with the Flames for the league's longest non-playoff streak. It is that Tortorella can't even enjoy the games.

"I don't watch it as a fan, and that's one of the most frustrating things for me," he said Monday between player exit interviews at the Ice Palace. "I can't watch it as a fan because you always try to dissect what the teams are doing.

"You're not even enjoying the game because you don't know what the score is because you're trying to break down the teams."

There are different ways to break down the Lightning's season. There are the 27 victories (three more than last season), the 69 points (10 more), the 178 goals (third-fewest in the league), 45 games either tied or decided by one goal, 19 one-goal losses.

We've certainly heard enough about how former general manager Rick Dudley lost his job because he tried to trade Vinny Lecavalier, how Lecavalier wanted the trade and how he and Tortorella don't always see eye-to-eye.

So let's get to the real stories: about how Lecavalier started scoring when he changed sticks, about how a linesman told center Brad Richards how to get a jump on faceoffs; and about how some players think one game broke the team's spirit.

It was March22, and the Canadiens tied the score at 3 with 6.2 seconds remaining. Had Tampa Bay won, it would have been eight points behind Montreal for the final playoff spot in the East with two games in hand.

Instead the Lightning went 2-8-1-1 to end its season. Montreal made the playoffs.

"The closing of the book right there," center Tim Taylor said.

"Let's just say it was like a hammer in the head," Lecavalier said. "It hurt a lot."

Tortorella and forward Dave Andreychuk said a season can't be boiled down to one game. There were games in October and November in which the team left points on the table, they said.

But there is no denying the effect of that game against the Canadiens.

"It definitely affected us," Richards said. "It didn't change our season necessarily right there, but we wouldn't have been out of it as quick as we were."

And once the team was out of it, "I couldn't stand it," Richards said. "The last five, six, seven games were terrible. I didn't enjoy them at all.

"You enjoy being out there and you respect being in the league, but it's not the same when you play games you have to win. March was so much fun. Games meant something every night."

What does it mean to have the right stick?

When the curve on Lecavalier's was not done correctly by his supplier, Nike, and replacements did not come quickly enough, the center switched to Easton.

That was just about the time Lecavalier began a seven-goal, 12-game streak to end the season.

Lecavalier declined to talk about it because he is under contract to Nike. But the hot streak made him the first Lightning player to score 20 goals in three consecutive seasons.

"It was a frustrating year but I was happy the way it ended," Lecavalier said. "I want to be better and produce more for the team. I didn't do that this year."

Richards wasn't doing much on faceoffs; a carryover, he said, from his days in junior hockey, where the finer points are not as important as scoring goals.

As he has worked harder on the skill, he has gotten better. Richards won 47 percent of his draws the last five games, compared to 41.2 for the season.

"It's technique a little bit, but there's no big secret to going like this," Richards said, acting out a faceoff. "It's reading the linesman, their tendencies."

He is reading better, in part, because of a chance meeting with a linesman one night in Tampa. Richards, Tampa Bay's points leader for consecutive seasons, said the linesman told him what to watch for when he drops the puck.

"We need to take another step," Richards said. "Everybody has to take their game to another level. I have to take my game to another level. I'm not going to be happy with another 60-point season if we're not in the playoffs."

Imagine how Tortorella would feel.


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