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All grown up and knowing what to do

Lightning learns valuable lessons from first series that it will carry into next round.

[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
The two key things goalie Nikolai Khabibulin and the Lightning learned from Round 1: "Composure and resiliency," coach John Tortorella says.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 22, 2003


TAMPA -- Measured in calendar years, Lightning players grew 10 days older during their six-game, East quarterfinal victory over the Washington Capitals. Measured in hockey years, though, the players matured from adolescents to adults.

Tampa Bay went into its best-of-seven series with nervous stomachs and, after a six-season playoff absence, no map to chart its path.

It came out with a 4-2 series triumph and what amounts to a playoff TripTik. Oh, and that acne cleared up as well.

"We were in a situation where we learned a tremendous amount about ourselves," coach John Tortorella said Monday. "Like I've always said, before you can become a winner and learn how to win, you have to believe you can win. They believe they can win."

That will come in handy in the conference semifinals that begin Thursday in New Jersey.

The Devils are Atlantic Division champions and the East's No. 2 seed. They tied the Philadelphia Flyers for the least goals allowed during the regular season with 166. They have Martin Brodeur, a Vezina candidate as the league's top goaltender. And the team has reached the playoffs every season since 1997 and won the 2000 Stanley Cup.

The third-seeded Lightning can't come close to that resume. But it won four straight against the Capitals after losing the first two at home, and won three times in Washington, where it had lost 11 in a row.

It earned two road, overtime victories, including Sunday's triple-overtime clincher in which it tied the score with 4:06 left in regulation. And it won from behind, something neither team had been able to do.

"This is all part of the learning process," defenseman Dan Boyle said. "We picked up a lot of experience in this series. All season people have been doubting us but we keep rising to the occasion. We never gave up when we were down 2-0. We won a big game in overtime in Game 3. We won (Game 6). Like I said, it's all part of the learning process."

That process stops teams from taking dumb penalties such as the ones that did in the Lightning in Game 2. It makes it inconsequential if a series starts at home or on the road. And it keeps teams from panicking when things go wrong.

Tortorella said he could see the process take hold in the locker room after Game 2.

"Composure and resiliency," Tortorella said when asked in what aspects the Lightning matured most during the Washington series. "Being down 2-0, that's a tough hill to climb. But I think the room in those situations just gets tight. It blocks everything out and gets tight and stays within themselves. That's where I really saw the room come together. ... That's what you need in these series."

Associate coach Craig Ramsay said there are many similarities between the development of the Lightning and the Ottawa Senators with whom he was an assistant from 1996-98.

The Senators (now the No. 1 team in the East) were young, talented and inexperienced when they made the playoffs for the first time in 1997. But Ottawa lost games 6 and 7 and squandered a 3-2 series lead over the Sabres in the East quarterfinals.

"The difference is when we had a chance to get Game 6 closed out, we got the job done," Ramsay said of the Lightning. "Our goalie was good, the team was committed and we managed to get the job done. The growth with this team is quicker than you see with most teams. They recognize the commitment you have to put forth, and they get the job done."

That job will be exponentially more difficult against the Devils, but the basic philosophy remains the same.

"I believe we've learned through the six games (against the Capitals) about the composure you need through a game, not only about penalties but handling surges," Tortorella said.

"We have a lot of lessons to learn and we're going to learn a ton more in the Jersey series. But the players believe they can win."

How adult.

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