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Lightning kicks off stretch run with biggie

Washington comes to town leading the division by three over Tampa Bay.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 4, 2003

TAMPA -- Brad Lukowich had a relaxing three days off during the All-Star break. But the Lightning defenseman said his mind was never far from the rink.

A 4-1-1 streak will do that, especially when it pushed Tampa Bay back into a playoff race that not long ago seemed about to leave it behind.

"It wasn't an All-Star break when you're sitting at home saying, "Oh, man, what's going to happen?"' Lukowich said after Monday's practice. "Now when you're sitting there and talking to your friends or your parents or whatnot, you're excited to go back to work."

And with a game tonight at the St. Pete Times Forum against the Capitals, just three points ahead of Tampa Bay in the Southeast, Lukowich said, "We came back in here, and everybody was buzzing about the game already. So it's exciting for us."

It is exciting for the players because it is February and the Lightning still is a legitimate playoff contender; not just on the periphery with the hope that it might sneak in with help from other teams.

Tampa Bay, which holds the No. 8 and final playoff spot in the East, actually has its fate in its hands. A victory tonight and it is one point behind Washington with a game in hand.

"It's really fun," center Brad Richards said. "Any time you can get a game that's this important, it's easy to get up for. Everybody should be ready."

Even coach John Tortorella, who dislikes talking about the playoffs (or even a playoff atmosphere) relented a bit.

"I hate to use the word playoffs with 30 games left. There's a lot of hockey to be played," he said. "But we're in the hunt."

Tampa Bay is in the hunt because it reversed January's 1-5-1-1 start. It is in the hunt because the players and coaches found common ground and inspiration after what might have been the Lightning's worst loss of the season: 3-2 to the Predators on Jan. 25, when a 2-1 lead was lost in 97 seconds of the third period.

For two days, the team watched and dissected video. Tortorella said it was an instructive undertaking with "spirited dialogue." And the players saw what was wrong.

The support by the forwards when the defense pinched had slipped, resulting in an inordinate amount of odd-man rushes. That made the defense tentative moving into the offensive zone, short-circuiting the aggressive system.

The team also was simply not working as hard.

That point was driven home by video Tortorella showed of three of the Lightning's best games: an opening-night 4-3 overtime victory against the Panthers, a 5-1 victory against the Hurricanes on Oct. 12 and a 4-2 victory against the Rangers on Oct. 21.

"I think it helped them tremendously. It was such a contrast," Tortorella said. "It helped a number of people to understand the attacking style we want to play. It just wasn't there."

"It was a wakeup call," center Tim Taylor said. "We thought we were playing well until we saw that. The last six games, we got back to that work ethic, and we got results."

Which pushed the Lightning to a five-victory January, one off the team record, and a showdown with the Capitals, who have won two of three against Tampa Bay this season.

"The All-Star Game is gone, and everyone knows what's right around the corner," Lukowich said. "It goes up another level. People say it's harder to win after Christmas. It's even harder to win after the All-Star Game."

"You need to go in with the mind-set not to counterpunch, not to wait for something to happen to you," Tortorella said. "Take the initiative and go after them.

"I think this is a great challenge to see if we can stay as businessmen, a business outlook and approach every day in preparing. You can't let off the pedal. You let off the pedal with 30 games left, other teams are jacking it up from there and you fall by the wayside."

In other words, it is no time to relax.

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