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Lightning still in a battle for respect

The team has a few more questions, but a lot have been answered during its hot start.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 4, 2002

The team has a few more questions, but a lot have been answered during its hot start.

Coach John Tortorella does not get why some in the NHL media have to snipe at the Lightning.

As if winning seven of 12 games and losing just three isn't enough for a team that not long ago set a league standard of four consecutive seasons with at least 50 losses, including overtime.

Instead, Tortorella hears Tampa Bay's start is an "aberration," and the team has not beaten a quality opponent.

"Are we the Red Wings that we're supposed to beat all these teams?" Tortorella said. "We're a 69-point team (last season) trying to find its way, and I think we're doing a pretty good job of it."

Although it has lost two in a row, this has the potential to be the Lightning's best team since the 1996 playoff team. Its attacking style is fun to watch. The team is scoring goals, and it not only has a chance to win every night, the players believe, as left wing Andre Roy said, "We can beat any team when we play hard."

It is an interesting dynamic. Though almost every player is contributing, no player is performing so far above expectations that there is talk of deals with the devil.

Players are a year older and, presumably, a year better. They came to training camp in shape, then faced more rigorous conditioning. The addition of defenseman Brad Lukowich and wing Ruslan Fedotenko added needed depth and skill, and the new rules to crack down on obstruction have played into the hands of a team with some speed.

There are concerns that still could turn this into a long season.

The Lightning is the league's fifth-youngest team, so maturity and confidence always will be issues. Special teams, specifically the power play, which has converted three of its past 41 chances, have been ragged. And there is so little organizational depth, major injuries to key players would be tough to overcome.

Tampa Bay has not yielded to the shortcomings. Players have bought into Tortorella's message and system, and they battle, which goes a long way toward closing the skill gap with the league's elite teams. Tampa Bay gets world-class goaltending from Nikolai Khabibulin, and the players are accountable to each other in the locker room.

"They have finally put together a team," Penguins coach Rick Kehoe said. "They've had young guys developing for a while, but they've also made some trades to get deeper and strengthened their goaltending. That all happened in the past couple of years, and now it's coming together for them."

"Tortorella has done a nice job coaching," Capitals general manager George McPhee said. "He ruffled some feathers along the way, but that happens when you're serious about people buying into a team concept. When you're well-coached and a fairly well-rounded team, and you have a good goalie, you can do a lot of things."

Such as battling the Penguins with intensity one night after struggling in a 3-2 loss to Washington. Tampa Bay lost 5-3 Saturday because it could not handle the Penguins' power play. But the Lightning was better five-on-five, and that sent a message.

"Things are not always going to go your way, and you're going to say, 'We didn't have it tonight,' " Tortorella said. "But you have to make sure you don't let it creep in so you say that the next game. Then your whole standard comes down. You have to fight the next game to get that standard back up.

"The resiliency and the maturity is at a level where we can handle that better right now. We're going to lose two, three, four in a row. It's how you handle that. Do you lose seven or eight in a row or do you come back and get on a winning streak? Those are the questions that still need to be answered."

For some around the league, answers are taking shape.

"This is a different team than a few years ago," Capitals wing Peter Bondra said. "It's not an expansion team anymore. They have young superstars like (Vinny) Lecavalier and (Brad) Richards. We have a lot of respect for them."

Said Pittsburgh wing Jan Hrdina: "I think they will be in the playoffs."

It could all come crashing down, of course. After two consecutive losses, Lightning players already may be walking that line between confidence and concern. And they know if they aren't ready to outwork their opponent, success will be hard to come by, because they do not have enough weapons to do it any other way and can no longer take teams by surprise.

"We can't just work hard, we have to work the right way," defenseman Cory Sarich said. "We've got to be on the attack. We have to be playing our game and not adapting to what other teams are doing to us."

Do that, and the sniping will stop.

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