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Standing on pinnacle tougher than climb

Published October 13, 2005

TAMPA - Funny, but they looked more graceful in the parade.

Not at all like the clumsy, plodding and misguided hockey players we watched against Boston the other night.

Strange, but they seemed so much larger in the posters.

Not even close to the timid and hesitant bunch that showed up for the first week of a Stanley Cup title defense.

Remarkable, but these guys looked nothing like hockey gods. No miracles, no parables, not even a parting of the neutral zone.

They looked, almost, human.

I know, it's a terrible thing to say. You've come to think of them as better than that. So much time passed between earning a title and returning to defend it, it seemed as if the Lightning had some right to eminent domain.

Instead, look at where we are. Four games into a season, and already at an important juncture.

"It's not like it's time to panic," coach John Tortorella said. "But we are trying to right the ship. We're trying to find an answer in a hurry."

You thought they would hit the ice this month and be just as hungry, just as scrappy, just as powerful as ever. Apparently, so did they.

Oh, I don't mean they mailed it in. The attention in training camp was acceptable. The effort in the first few games has been okay.

It's just that more is needed. More aggression. More discipline. More desperation. More realization that, though they may not have changed, the world around them has. Around the time their names were being carved on Lord Stanley's Cup, Lightning players were getting targets painted on their backs.

This is the current reality for Tampa Bay. That every team sees the Lightning in a new way. As a measuring stick. As motivation. Or, simply, as a team with the potential to embarrass if maximum effort is not found.

You saw it against Boston on Monday night. You might see it again with Buffalo tonight.

That is why Tortorella pushed his players so hard in Tuesday's practice. That is why he has pulled them aside for some heart-to-heart chats.

He is not yet scolding. He is not losing his cool or threatening punishment. He's just pointing out what they will soon discover themselves.

And he is curious to see how they will respond tonight.

"We have good people here. We have character people here," Tortorella said. "They just don't fully grasp what's ahead of them. You can say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm ready for it.' But you're not until you go through it."

Turns out, the transition from hunter to hunted is not simply a change in direction. It requires a new awareness that can't be simulated in practice.

There is another dimension of expectations and a higher level of pressures. If the payoff was in the new contracts of the offseason, the cost is in the responsibility of being the leaders of the pack.

Tortorella said Monday night he saw players doing things he had not seen in three years. It showed up in some players as a lack of effort. In others, there was almost too much effort.

It is ridiculously early, but the Lightning has not yet found its footing. It is not playing with the same style or attitude of 2003-04.

"We played two months of glorious (playoff) hockey and had a ball together," Tortorella said. "Now it's back to the grind. They have to learn that. Teams are coming after them with that much more intensity to put a notch in their belt. That's what we're going through. And we're just starting.

"We are going to hit some major bumps in the road this year. We've had a number of meetings already just four games in. The struggles right now are a blip on the screen to what we're going to be seeing in games 35 and 40."

Okay, reality check. This is not a message of doom, and it's only a partial tale of gloom. The Lightning still is one of the NHL's best. You know that. Tortorella knows that. And, most importantly, the players know that.

Barring injuries or a complete collapse in the net, Tampa Bay should still be standing in late spring and threatening to take hostage of your summer.

The bad news is that there are pitfalls have been pointed out by the time breakfast was served.

The best thing this team did in the past was buy into Tortorella's message of accountability and responsibility. He's preaching it again, only this time with a twist. If the players thought it was difficult to scale the mountain, they have no idea what it takes to balance on the peak.

So it starts anew tonight. It starts with the realization that there will be no more freebies on the schedule. That the rings on their fingers mean they are in for a new commitment.

They may be able to repeat, but they can never relax.

[Last modified October 13, 2005, 01:11:19]

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