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Lightning taken to school, but will it learn?

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 13, 2003

TAMPA -- Here is one way to look at it:

It's not really ending, it's just beginning. What you are seeing are the first hours of the playoff team the Lightning will someday become.

Here is another way to look at it:


Really, either view works. You do not have to dismiss one to believe in the other. It's just observing the same wreckage from different points of view.

First, there is the literal view. (Known by some as the Did-I-really-pay-$80-for-this view.) From this vantage point, the Lightning has been a mess.

Players have been aggressive to the point of, and beyond, foolish. The best skaters have gone missing, the goalkeeper has not carried his share of the burden and Andre Roy has been sent to timeout. Tampa Bay trails Washington by two games only because Game 3 remains a couple of days away.

"I know they have a stranglehold on the series," coach John Tortorella said.

Then there is the meditative view. The one that allows you to look beyond the bungles and blunders to see the greater landscape. To envision Tampa Bay as a franchise that has room to grow.

Lightning players have not been intimidated. Their defense was mostly solid in Game 1 and the offense was better in Game 2. Tampa Bay trails Washington by two games simply because it is severely lacking playoff experience.

"We're learning some lessons here. There's no question about that," Tortorella said.

So what should we be thinking?

That we should have known better.

The Lightning, to a great degree, had obscured reality. The team looked so fine, played with such purpose in March, that we overlooked some things.

Specifically, a payroll that was one of the lowest in the league. And a roster that is among the youngest. Neither precludes the Lightning from having success in the playoffs, but they make the prospects much more difficult.

It had been seven years since the franchise had reached the postseason and all we kept hearing was the difference in the level of intensity.

Smarter, tougher teams succeed in the postseason because they recognize the difference between being physical and being reckless. They understand the ebbs and flows of momentum and the tricks to control it.

The hope was the Lightning would get hands-on experience. It has been more like a hands-on-the-throat experience.

Once it has gotten beyond 0-0, the score has yet to look good for Tampa Bay. The Lightning has played 120 minutes and has trailed for 99.

The Capitals, underachievers for much of the season, have made the Lightning look like a team in search of a clue. The Lightning, a team of overachievers, has allowed the Capitals to do this.

"They can raise their level," captain Dave Andreychuk said. "A guy like (Jaromir) Jagr does this year in and year out. It's not like this is the first time he's played well in the playoffs. He knows how to raise his level."

This is what we have not seen from the Lightning. No one is asserting himself at a critical moment. There have been positives, there has been energy, but there has not been a playmaker of consequence.

Vinny Lecavalier was stopped by Olaf Kolzig on what could have been a tying goal in Game 1. Several Lightning players missed shots and rebounds that could have meant a lead in the opening minutes of Game 2. Nikolai Khabibulin has been a victim of defensive breakdowns, but has not rescued his team.

"Kolzig makes three or four great saves and then they come down the first time and score," Tortorella said. "It hurts."

There are four players on the ice who scored 30 or more goals this season. There's Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis. And there's Jagr and Peter Bondra.

Jagr and Bondra have scored four times and combined for eight points in two games. Lecavalier and St. Louis have not scored and have no points.

You can say it is not fair to compare Lecavalier, 22, and St. Louis, 27, to a pair of playoff veterans such as Jagr and Bondra, but it is reality. The Caps are getting big plays from their biggest players.

"They're very gifted offensive players. They've been doing this a long time," St. Louis said.

"Everybody wants to step up in the playoffs and be the hero, be the go-to guy. We're trying to do the same thing they are. But they're up 2-0, and we're down 0-2. They're smiling; we're not."

It is difficult to picture this with a happy ending. Not with Games 3 and 4 in Washington, where the Lightning has failed to win in its past 11 attempts.

But that does not mean the series has to be without benefit. Lightning players already have learned some things about the playoffs and themselves.

They have at least two more games to grow.

It all depends on how they choose to look at it.

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