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No time to scream just yet

GARY SHELTON
Published May 27, 2004

TAMPA - It was the middle of the night, and the man in charge of the answers was still in the dark.

John Tortorella sat in his office and stared at the glow of a television screen, watching a tape one more time, even though the score never altered, even though there were few signs of his team to be seen. As autopsies go, this one was kind of messy.

It was nearly 3 a.m., hours after the Lightning had lost the first game of the Stanley Cup final to Calgary, but the wounds still felt fresh, and the defeat was still taking large bites out of Tortorella's insides.

This is where the search for clues begins, in the coaching hours, in the bowels of an empty coliseum, in the echoes of a disappointing performance. This was where Tortorella pondered the next step for himself and for his team.

Should he scream? Should he kick and curse and snarl and snap? Should he shake up the room by shaking up the roster? Was it time for explanations or explosions?

Part of Tortorella, and he admits this, wanted to yell. He is a competitor, after all, and in a lost effort, it feels good to yell. Besides, Tortorella has a gift for it; he has one of those barbed-wire voices that can flay skin from bone. Yell, and the people in the cheap seats are behind you. Yell, and everyone talks about what a competitor you are.

"The easy thing is to kick up dust, but that might not be the best thing for your hockey team." Tortorella said. "When you yell, you get it off your chest, so you feel better. But yelling (for effect) can be a bunch of crap. That's an ego thing."

Instead, Tortorella spoke Wednesday with the voice of a professor: calm, patient. One more time, he was willing to go over the lesson. One more time, he wanted the students to grasp the material. The Flames are pretty good, okay? You're going to have to work pretty hard to match their play, okay?

Say this for Tortorella and his assistants: Throughout this season, throughout the last three seasons, the coaches have been effective at measuring this team's pulse. As a result, the Lightning has been fairly resilient.

Remember the way the Lightning was handled in Game 2 of the Islanders series? There were those who wondered what Tortorella was going to do about New York's oppressive defense. Remember Game 2 against the Flyers, when Tortorella had to find a way to counter the Flyers' physical presence? Remember Game 6, when he had to find a way to counter the Lightning's mental condition following a late defeat?

Now, his team trails in a series for the first time, and it faces a huge Game 2, and once again, we look to Tortorella for answers. Turns out, they will be quiet, reasoned answers.

"The whole objective of a coaching staff is what's best for the team," Tortorella said. "If you don't have the pulse of the team in mind, you're not doing your job."

So far, Tortorella has done a splendid job. More people would be talking about it, frankly, if Torts would slow down and talk about it himself.

He is a man wound as tightly as a $2 watch, if you want to know the truth, and he'd rather endure water torture than sit through another news conference. If he wins, he'd just as soon not give away the reasons why. If he loses, he wants to be somewhere working on the problem.

Oh, if he lingered a bit, if he talked about the changes that worked and shrugged and grinned when someone tried to give him the credit for it, he would be called a great coach. If he told a better joke and gave a better quip, he'd be thought of as a great guy.

The thing is, Tortorella probably cares less about being called the smartest guy in the room than any coach you will run across. After his exchange with Philadelphia coach Ken Hitchcock last series took the heat off his team, Tortorella received a lot of mileage for his ability as a psychologist.

Truth is, the guy isn't bad as a strategist, either. Repeatedly during the playoffs, he's been able to coax a favorable matchup on the way to a victory. Good luck getting him to talk about it.

"He's a great X's and O's coach," Tampa Bay general manager Jay Feaster said. "He is just convinced the game is about the players, so he isn't going to talk about it."

Take faith from this. If Tortorella and his team are facing the most adversity they have faced this year, if he is going to have to coach his fanny off from this point on, well, he's handled adversity well before. If you remember, it was the way Tortorella handled his team through a dark December that encouraged the front office to sign him to his new contract.

As for Tortorella, he doesn't mind a little adversity, either. He's in the right sport for it.

"For a coaching staff and a team to grow in the proper way, to build a strong team, there has to be adversity," Tortorella said. "Otherwise, you don't test yourself. You don't test your team. The best thing about sports is how you respond, how you go about responding the right way."

For Tortorella, the calm approach was the right one to take. A reasoned second plan of attack made sense.

Perhaps it works.

If not, there is always time to get louder later.

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