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Underdogs respond with clock ticking

Maybe Tampa Bay needs to be pushed. Perhaps it responds best to desperation.

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 16, 2003

WASHINGTON -- What we need here is doubt. And plenty of it. What we could really use are some critics. As snotty as you can find.

And, for the love of Lord Stanley, let's make sure there are chips available for each and every shoulder.

The Lightning is coming back to life and, by gosh, the players need righteous indignation and a rising dander to rally around.

This is what you saw in a 4-3 overtime victory in Game 3. This is what you recall from March. A team left for dead finding an improbable pulse.

If it looks bleak, that's good. If it looks impossible, that's better. For this is when the Lightning plays its best. This is when a homely bunch of players seems most attractive.

Encourage them to race down the ice as if their hair is on fire. Provoke them by suggesting they have no hope.

Tampa Bay was in big trouble.

And thank goodness for that.

"This team has been dismissed and ignored all year," general manager Jay Feaster said. "Yet, quietly and consistently, they have continued to battle and battle, and fight and fight. In a lot of ways, this team is motivated by that. They recognize they're the underdogs."

And should they fail to recognize it, coach John Tortorella will quickly make introductions. For the better part of two days, he has talked about how Washington is favored to win. How the Lightning is everyone's underdog.

Never mind Tampa Bay was a division winner, a higher seed and began with home-ice advantage. By losing its first two, he figures the Lightning has reclaimed the right to play the role of the poorer relations.

Ask about the offense and he'll agree Tampa Bay is an underdog. Press about the defense and he'll tell you, yes, the Lightning certainly is an underdog.

"We don't feel the pressure," Tortorella said. "No matter what happens in the series, we're not supposed to win."

Perhaps, for these players, this way is best.

When the Lightning exhaled after clinching the division title, it was throttled in consecutive games. When it went into this series as the higher seed, it failed to find a second's peace.

Maybe Tampa Bay needs to be pushed. Perhaps it responds best to desperation.

After all, there is a certain freedom that comes with fiasco. A sense of recklessness that accompanies despair.

For the Lightning, the first two games of the playoffs had been so off-the-charts horrible, there was little fear of it getting worse.

This is how the players performed in Game 3. This is the posture they brought to the ice.

"They are the most amazingly resilient bunch I've ever been around," Feaster said. "That's what I hope the fans in Tampa recognize and appreciate. These guys have battled all year."

They were down 2-0 and playing in an arena where they had not seen victory in more than three seasons. Still, they won.

They got a lead for the first time in the series and blew it. They blew a second lead, too. The third lead had them three minutes from victory and they managed to lose that one as well. Still they won.

"When they tie it up, it's like 'Aw, (expletive).' You do get that feeling," Martin St. Louis said. "Anybody who tells you they don't get that feeling is lying. The key is to go out there and keep working your butt off.

"We had to work through that feeling three times tonight."

There is a sign that has hung in Tampa Bay's locker room for most of the season. A simple, understated slogan that explains something about this group.

Safe is Death.

It was the brainchild of associate coach Craig Ramsay. And it perfectly fits a team with a complex of inferiority.

It means, essentially, that this team needs to attack. Needs to go after opponents instead of waiting to react.

It means not being afraid of risk and not being intimidated by failure.

"Teams sometimes get caught up in being afraid of another team, being afraid of making a mistake, then they lose their identity," Ramsay said. "We want our team to skate, to attack, to legitimately be trying to win."

Ramsay's sign was brought with the Lightning to Washington. And it was given an interesting place in the visiting locker room.

The room is cramped, which may explain it. Space on the wall is scarce, so it might have simply been coincidence.

But the sign was hanging right beneath a clock. A clock that was essentially counting down Tampa Bay's season.

By the time Lightning players left the locker room for overtime, they might well have been within 24 hours of season's end.

Instead, the victory bought the Lightning another day.

Another chance to be doubted.

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