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One line improves the script

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 20, 2003

TAMPA -- It is not difficult to trace the origin of genius. You need only find the point of inspiration. Then, peel it back, and discover the desperation buried beneath.

Now you understand the belated appearance of Lightning goal scorers. Now you know the truth behind the offensive punch line.

It did not come to John Tortorella in a dream. Nor in a moment of reflection. It came to the Lightning coach in a rout. Toward the end of Game2, when Tampa Bay's offense was habitually stuck in the neutral zone.

This was when he began juggling his front lines. Sending Dave Andreychuk to join Brad Richards and Fredrik Modin. Moving Ruslan Fedotenko to a line with Alexander Svitov and Nikita Alexeev. And, what the heck, having Martin St. Louis go to work with Vinny Lecavalier and Vinny Prospal.

Today, it is nine goals, three consecutive victories and several IQ points later. The combination of St. Louis, Lecavalier and Prospal has been all the rage. It has also, practically, been all the offense.

Since the switch, St. Louis has four goals, Lecavalier has three, Prospal has two and Tortorella has a hard time deflecting the credit.

"Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. If it doesn't, you get second-guessed. If it does, it's a great move," Tortorella said. "Here's where I'm not comfortable; I don't like all the stuff about, 'This was a great move.' It still comes down to the players. They have to step up."

Want to know how sure Tortorella was about the St. Louis-Lecavalier-Prospal line? He thought the Modin-Richards-Andreychuk line might be better.

When he began fiddling with combinations late in Game2, both lines seemed to produce more scoring opportunities than earlier. But it was Modin and Andreychuk who put the puck in the net.

Three games later, Tortorella still says the Richards line is playing well. The Lecavalier line is just playing unbelievably well.

"How do they do it? I don't know because they make me look stupid all the time," defenseman Brad Lukowich said. "I wish I could tell you something to go tell (the Caps) what to do, but I don't know. It's almost like they have this unspoken bond. It's like they know what they're going to do next, even before they get into the situation."

In the most basic sense, the line is playing well because all three players are outstanding passers. They have the talent to create opportunities on their own, but have ignored the flashy stuff to work together as a unit.

Specifically, the addition of St. Louis has led to matchup problems for the Capitals. Early in the series, Lecavalier was having trouble getting past the blue line because Washington was doing a good job of checking. With St. Louis zooming by on the right, the Caps have been more conservative.

"Marty has added that speed element. He's really got his legs moving," Andreychuk said. "I believe their defense is not standing up on Vinny as much anymore. Marty has been able to back them up with his speed."

St. Louis worked with Lecavalier's line on rare occasions in the past, but never for long.

The reasoning is you never want to put too much dynamite in one charge. Spread your goal scorers out so you are not too dependent on the first line.

But, when you're two days from elimination as the Lightning was going into Game3 Tuesday night, any type of offensive explosion would look good.

"There was no science to this," Tortorella said. "I kept throwing different combinations together. You use this, that and the other thing and you hope something sticks to the wall, and I mean that. You could see those two lines at least begin to create some offense in the last 10-12 minutes of Game2, so I knew after that game we were going that way."

This wasn't open for discussion or debate. Tortorella never told the players a shakeup was coming.

"When you're down 2-0 and the coach is trying to do something, it's not the time to talk about it. You just go with it," St. Louis said. "We're professionals, you know? I got a different practice jersey than I used to have, so I knew I was on a new line. That was it. I know he needed us to score goals. You don't have to be told that."

If anything, Tortorella believes the move was better motivation than strategy. There are times when it is better to show a sense of urgency than to speak of it.

If the Lightning had any doubt it was in a serious jam after two games, it was pointed out by the unusual move of switching top lines in the middle of a series.

"It changes their mind-set. You're putting some pressure on the players," Tortorella said. "They think, 'We've got to pick it up here. Something is not going right.' So then it falls on them. And I give them all the credit."

He also gave them inspiration.

And all it took was a little desperation.

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