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Playoffs 2004

Lighting the lamp

Tampa Bay's system was tailor-made for players, creating a refreshing brand of hockey that set the league on fire. Since January, no team has scored more goals than the Lightning.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published April 8, 2004

photo
[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
Once over the boards, Lightning players are instantly on the attack, ignoring the trap and playing an aggressive puck-pursuit system. Tampa Bay finished with 245 goals, behind only the Senators (262) and Red Wings (255) despite a dismal December that netted just 29 in 13 games.

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Click for graphic

Nick Kypreos watched the Lightning play the Maples Leafs in Toronto on March 23 and couldn't believe what he saw.

Tampa Bay's speed and intense forecheck were running the Leafs ragged, especially the defensemen who could not cope with the Lightning's energy and ability.

For Kypreos, a former NHL player and a television analyst for Rogers Sportsnet in Canada, it wasn't so much the Leafs were playing badly, though he acknowledged deficiencies among the defensemen in retreating to get the puck, but that Tampa Bay was playing so well in a 7-2 rout.

"They are the most entertaining hockey club out there," Kypreos said last week. "I thoroughly enjoy watching Tampa Bay. There are times I've cringed when having to watch a hockey game, but it has never happened with the Lightning."

At the Brophy household outside Toronto in Oshawa, Mike, a senior writer for the Hockey News, said he has a deal with wife, Marilyn, a rabid Maple Leafs fan.

"I tell her she can watch the Leafs, but if the Lightning is playing a good game, we're watching the Lightning," Brophy said. "I watch the Lightning all the time."

Can this be true? Can the hockey snobs in Canada, who generally raise their noses at the NHL's Sun Belt teams like a wine connoisseur holds his nose when confronted with light beer, actually be jumping on the Lightning bandwagon?

It is a matter of aesthetics.

In a trap-heavy league with teams that mostly sit back, clog the neutral zone and wait for an opponent to cough up the puck (think Devils), the Lightning's puck-pursuit system is a breath of fresh air.

In a league in which clutching and grabbing are almost condoned as a way to disrupt offensive flow, Tampa Bay, which prefers to attack before that flow gets started, is a ray of sunshine.

And considering the all-out search to get more offense into the game, the Lightning, the top scoring team in the league since Jan. 3 with 166 goals, seems to offer a solution.

"They play a pressure game," Thrashers coach Bob Hartley said. "Their balance and speed gives them lots of firepower."

"It feels like you're playing offense even when you're playing defense," Tampa Bay left wing Fredrik Modin said. "You're always on the run. You're always trying to put pressure on your opponent. You never sit back.

"If you're trapping, you can get caught up shift after shift of trapping and not moving forward. Our trap is our forecheck. Instead of just sitting back and letting them come to us, we're trying to step up and go to them and play defense that way. I can only speak for myself. I feel great playing it."

Look, no one is suggesting the NHL's copycat coaches are going to change their systems because the Lightning has had some success, though if Tampa Bay wins the Stanley Cup, you have to believe some teams will take a look.

For now, the Lightning is just happy to reap the rewards of a system devised by coach John Tortorella and associate coach Craig Ramsay and tailored to the strengths of their players. A system so physically demanding, the team's summer and preseason training programs are the league's toughest.

A system so different from what is generally going on in the league, and so much fun to watch, the NHL has taken notice.

What has created the buzz?

"Our strategy is to aggressively try to get the puck when we don't have it, and when we do have the puck we're going to go," Tortorella said. "It's puck pursuit under the heading of don't be afraid to make mistakes when being aggressive. It's a game of mistakes, but we tell our players we'd rather have them happen through aggression than being timid in getting the puck back."

It is a simple plan as these things go.

When an opponent has the puck deep in his zone, Tampa Bay sends one player to confront him to try to force a turnover. Two other forecheckers guard the side boards to block escape routes and passing lanes and react to what the opponent and his teammates do. The defensemen move up as far as the opponent's blue line to further choke off the offensive flow.

If a turnover occurs, whether it is in the opposition's zone or the neutral zone, an instantaneous transition kicks in and it is up to the players' creativity to make a play and make it pay off.

When Tampa Bay has the puck, it is all about reading what the defense gives.

If the Lightning approaches the opponent's blue line with strength in numbers, the puck is carried into the offensive zone and the players' creativity takes over. If confronted with equal numbers or if outmanned, the puck is chipped in and the chase (which can turn into the kind of forecheck previously explained) is on.

Key are the defensemen. The further up ice they push, whether it be during the forecheck to cut off the neutral zone, or on the offensive rush during which they are encouraged to read the play and get to the net, the more support they can give the forwards.

The danger is getting caught up ice, which could leave Tampa Bay's goaltender at the mercy of an odd-man rush or, worse, breakaways. That is why all Lightning players, forwards included, must be willing to bust it back to the defensive zone. Still, having an elite goaltender is crucial.

That is why the acquisition of Nikolai Khabibulin was so important.

Tortorella started implementing his system in January 2001 shortly after taking over for the fired Steve Ludzik. With Khabibulin in net for the start of the 2001-02 season, Tortorella was able to accelerate adding wrinkles such as the forward push of the defensemen. But even that could not be fully enjoined until the forwards were committed to getting back on defense.

In that sense the system is more evolutionary than revolutionary.

"We've made it into a more aggressive system as our players have matured," Tortorella said. "I think it's fun for the players to play. We've adopted it pretty well and we're going to stick with it."

"Just thinking about it (bleeps).'

As much as goaltending is a priority, the Lightning's system would not work without the right players. Give Tortorella and Ramsay credit, then, in the creative process.

They looked at their roster three years ago and saw the talent of Vinny Lecavalier and Brad Richards, the speed and athleticism of Martin St. Louis, the strength of Modin, the creativity of Dan Boyle and Vinny Prospal, the willingness of Dave Andreychuk and Tim Taylor, and the energy of a very young roster and decided to turn it all loose.

Prospal was lost to free agency. But additions such as Ruslan Fedotenko, Cory Stillman, Chris Dingman, Andre Roy and Dmitry Afanasenkov added to the mix.

"So who are you going to watch?" Hartley said. "If it's not one guy it's going to be another."

Now, take a deep breath, because if you really want to know what fuels the Lightning's system, it is conditioning.

Yeah, yeah, all athletes are in shape. But Tortorella wants his players pushing and grinding for 60 minutes. There is not much opportunity for players to glide through a game. Just ask Lecavalier, who has been benched a couple of times for doing just that.

Add that Tortorella is a bit of a fitness buff himself and that when he took over as coach his evaluation was that "we were the most poorly conditioned team in the league," and something was going to change.

It started with what the coaching staff expected of the players, who are sent home every summer with a fitness program they are strongly suggested to follow. For those who don't, training camp becomes a torture chamber.

"It is a very strenuous camp," Tortorella said. "To play a system where you're pursuing the puck and pinching and getting up ice all the time you have to be in better shape. That's the one thing you can control, to be the absolute fittest athlete you can be entering camp."

Practice is followed by hard skates, one day sprints, one day distance. Players have vomitted from the effort. Practice during the day, a 3-mile run at night.

"Training camp is tough, but we reap the benefit later on, and we have," St. Louis said.

Pause.

"But going through it (bleeps) very much. Just thinking about it (bleeps)."

"It is pretty brutal," Richards said. "It's really bad going into it because you don't want to do it. But once it's over you laugh about it."

The flip side are the days off Tortorella gives the players during the season. The day after a road trip always is off as is the day after back-to-back games, Sundays too. But Tortorella also gives off days whenever he feels necessary.

"I believe we lead the league in that," the coach said. "Over-practicing doesn't help your team win. It doesn't help your team stay with that conditioning level, and that's an important thing, keeping them at that level.

"It's not so much physically but mentally. If they're not sharp mentally, you won't get anything out of them physically. So we are really cognizant of giving them as much time off as we can."

"Once you get into the time of the season, rest is huge," Richards said. "It helps heal injuries and gets us mentally relaxed, and getting away from the game makes us mentally sharper."

A new wave ... maybe

It is a few minutes later in Kypreos' critique and he is still finding things at which to marvel about the Lightning.

The Rogers Sportsnet analyst loves the way Tampa Bay players keep their feet moving, know their assignments and stick to them, which means everyone is on the same page. And that may be most important of all.

"To just play a system is one thing," Kypreos said. "But to have 20 guys trust it is another. It's not something that comes overnight."

Kypreos said credit the coach.

"I think Torts has done a hell of a job in making everyone believers in the system," he said. "It is the focus as well. It's having every single guy know what their role is and their responsibility.

"The beauty of it is when you have a coach that challenges his best players, then wherever you are in the pecking order is irrelevant. Then you know that at any point, a Lecavalier or a Khabibulin can be called out, and you can as well. You'd better bring your A game because the coach plays no favorites. For Torts, it's high risk and reward, and now he's reaping the rewards."

Still, Pierre McGuire, a television analyst for TSN in Canada and a former Whalers coach, said Tortorella would not be getting those rewards without the right players. That is why, McGuire said, Tampa Bay's system is difficult to copy.

"You can't expect teams that don't have those kinds of players to adapt to that system," he said. "It makes it a different deal in terms of how you're going to play."

"That's because they chose to get a bunch of big slugs who can only play defense and that's the direction they chose to take," said Brophy of the Hockey News. (New Jersey defenseman) Jay Pandolfo couldn't play in Tampa Bay's system because he doesn't have the polish. I think the Lightning is one of the teams blazing a new trail of offense. If you're going to try to emulate what the Lightning does, you have to restructure your team."

Brophy reminded that 20 years ago not many teams played the trap, and early exits from the playoffs did not stop that transition.

"If you look at the history of the NHL, a lot of teams that have gone on to win the Stanley Cup have suffered grave disappointments," he said. "Just stick with the program. Continue to fine tune it. These kids are going to get better. They haven't peaked by any stretch of the imagination."

Certainly not in Tortorella's estimation. The coach coops up in his St. Pete Times Forum office as late as 2 a.m. after games, critiquing video, analyzing and breaking down whether the players are operating correctly within the system.

There are credits and demerits, all of which show up at the next day's video session.

But every once in a while, Tortorella, the glow from the television on his face, sits back and takes a moment of satisfaction.

"When I sit down and see it working consistently, that's fun for a coach and a coaching staff to see," he said. " "You know what? They're understanding it. You know what? It's successful and maybe they'll keep doing it.'

"You want to be consistent with it. It's not always going to be perfect. But there have been some times this year I've sat there watching it and have been pretty excited about it."

For Tortorella, seeing is believing.

[Last modified April 7, 2004, 11:23:20]

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