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A horrible start, but no reason to hit panic button

Published May 26, 2004

TAMPA - This is what six months of good will buys you. Faith that a wretched night is more fluke than reality.

This is what repeated answers to challenges will get you. Hope that time is not running quite as short as it seems.

For it would be easy to panic this morning. Some might say it was advisable. The Lightning, for the first time this postseason, trails. Worse still, it looks nothing like a team chasing a championship.

So scoff if you like. Groan if you must.

Just remember, the Lightning has been dismissed before.

You may recall Game 2 against the Islanders. The Lightning spent half the game on the power play and could not come close to the net. And, from there, Tampa Bay did not lose again for a month.

You may recall Game 2 against the Flyers. The Lightning was beaten to every puck and turned away from every opportunity. And, from there, Tampa Bay would go on to the biggest road win in franchise history.

This has been the greatest lesson in Tampa Bay's most wonderful season. That a franchise lacking experience, lacking history, lacking, at times, support from the owner's box, could have as much character as this team.

Of course, this does not guarantee a rebound in Game 2. It does not mean Lightning players will go on to inscribe their names in history.

It only suggests that, on a night when they looked as clueless as you have seen them, there is faith the next hour will get better.

"This is a must-win for us. We do not want to go down 0-2," captain Dave Andreychuk said. "This (would) not be the end of the world, but you can probably see it."

The challenge is more difficult this time. The Flames have talent the Islanders clearly lacked. They have a confidence the Flyers rarely showed.

Calgary did not beat the Lightning with strategy or muscle. It was simply a better, more disciplined team. And that's a frightening concept to embrace.

"I thought at times we got a little frustrated," coach John Tortorella said. "We tried to make things happen when they weren't there, instead of just keeping it simple and getting the puck in deep."

Maybe this is what happens when you chase celebration with anticipation. It is difficult for the next act to follow.

Game 7 against the Flyers Saturday night was the grandest moment in this franchise's history. And 48 hours later, the Lightning was flat.

"We need a lot better start. Our desperation level has to get back to where it was the last series," Andreychuk said. "As the game went on, we started playing better, we started getting more chances."

It took only 3:02 to fall behind.

It didn't take too much longer to fall apart.

The Lightning would seem to control the tempo for long stretches, and somehow get left even further back. Fancy passes were intercepted, flashy moves went unfulfilled.

The statistics will tell you the Lightning played well. The statistics, on this night, had little in common with reality.

Take, for instance, the number of shots. Tampa Bay had 24, the Flames had 19. And all that proves is Tampa Bay failed to take advantage of opportunity.

Consider, for example, the majority of faceoffs were won by the Lightning. And most of those faceoffs led to meaningless results.

Ponder, for a moment, the idea that Calgary had only one power-play opportunity through the first 40 minutes. And it didn't matter a bit.

Choose any type of failure you wish.

At some point, the Lightning sampled it.

There were the passes sent to imaginary teammates. And the ones that did find their targets were, more often than not, whiffed.

There were the defensive lapses. The failures to put a shoulder into the Calgary body that ventured too close to the net.

There were the first three power plays. The most inconsequential, out-of-tune power plays you've ever seen. Power plays that not even the Philadelphia penalty killers could possibly foul up.

"It's an easy thing to say you lose 4-1 and you have got to play harder. I am not going to be a dummy and say that," Tortorella said. "I will look at the tape. We will find things we need to improve and we'll go about our business and try to get better."

This is what the Lightning has done best all season. It has hit bumps and moved forward. It has run into problems and worked around them.

For those who have watched this season, prosperity always seemed a line change away. As if that night's star had a number in hand like the next customer in the deli line.

Maybe it would be Brad Richards. Or Vinny Lecavalier. Or Martin St. Louis. Or Fredrik Modin. The Lightning never lacked for stars. Just the time to accommodate them all.

Today, there is still time.

All it takes is the faith to recognize it.

[Last modified May 26, 2004, 01:04:09]

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Mary Jo Melone: Struggling to right Iraq, but losing faith at home
Bill Maxwell: Many battles ahead for black graduates
John Romano: A horrible start, but no reason to hit panic button
Gary Shelton: More than ever, the Lightning needs St. Louis
Mary Ann Koslasky: Much done in 40 years but much more to do

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