Lightning's Big Three still not big enough

Published October 14, 2005

TAMPA - Once again, he had the world on a stick. Once again, Marty St. Louis was staring at clear ice and sweet dreams.

The score was tied, five minutes to go, and St. Louis was flying down the ice on a breakaway. The team's best player in the game's best moment, and what more could the Lightning ask? Dozens of times, you have seen such a play, and dozens of times, you have counted the goal.

Not this time. This time, Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller poked away the threat.

And for the Lightning, the stars still have not eaten away the darkness.

The struggles continue, and the frayed edges of a season that has started out wrong still show. The Lightning was better than it had been against the Sabres, and the Triplets - Marty, Vinny and Richie - were better than they have been.

Still, the Lightning lost.

Still, a team looks to its best players to guide it back to where it was.

Oh, for much of the night, it appeared this would be the night that Brad Richards, Vinny Lecavalier and St. Louis would rally their troops. Finally, a game had their fingerprints all over it. Richards had a tying goal. Lecavalier had a tying goal.

There was more energy. There was more flow. There was more control. The Lightning is long past congratulating itself after defeat, but this looked better, felt better.

Yet, it was not enough. Lecavalier got off a sharp, low shot with a minute and a half to go in regulation, and St. Louis and Richards were stopped on shootout attempts. In other words, the Big Three each had a shot at the net late. None succeeded.

"I'm not doing enough," St. Louis said after the game. "I know that."

St. Louis, last year's MVP, is struggling. There seems to be something about him slightly out of tune, out of focus. His energy is still good, but his finishing touch is missing.

"He's fighting it," Lightning coach John Tortorella said. "That's one reason I stuck him out there first on the shootout. I wanted him to stick in there, not just for our team but for him. He's fighting it, but it's not because of effort and it's not because of caring. We've seen Marty go through these things before. When he gets one, they'll come in bunches."

Before Thursday night, you might suggest the same of Richards and Lecavalier. They, too, had been invisible. Together, the three players possess most of the talent, and most of the money and, therefore, most of the responsibility for righting the ship. They were the guy who used to be St. Louis and the guy who answers Lecavalier's mail and the winner of the Brad Richards Lookalike Contest.

Funny thing, stardom. It demands more all the time. Sign the big contract, and your teammates look for you to guide them through the tough moments. Score the big goals, and coaches look for you to score them more often. Flirt often enough with greatness, and the world expects you to move in. Otherwise, you are yesterday's news.

The pressure mounts. The expectations rise. Everyone checks to see if you sweat as hard, if you grunt as loud, if you attack the corners with the same abandon.

The league goes to a salary cap, which means the stars have to be stars. The season starts off wobbly, which means the stars have to be stars. The team is trying to re-establish its identity, which means the stars have to be stars.

As much as anything, that appeared to be the shortcoming of the Lightning. It was wandering around the fringes of the season, waiting for its best players to show the way.

Yes, the season is young, and yes, perhaps it was too soon for coach John Tortorella to talk about a game being crucial. On the other hand, why wait until it is too late? Over the last two seasons, the Lightning has gotten out of the gates quickly, and the two finest seasons in franchise history have followed.

In its Stanley Cup season, the Lightning was 5-0 after five games, and St. Louis, Lecavalier and Richards combined for nine goals. The season before, it started 4-0-1, and the three of them combined for five goals. Both times, the Lightning set a tone early, and the confidence built seemed to last throughout the season.

This year? This year the Lightning went wandering. Richards and Lecavalier each scored in the opener, but neither again until Thursday night. St. Louis had scored only once, on a five-on-three power play, and had only seven shots in four games.

It seemed that something was missing from each of them. Spark, in some cases. Control, in others. They tried to do too much, tried to look too cute. They made fancy passes and spinning moves until you might swear they had turned into the Harlem Globetrotters on ice.

No one should accuse any of the three of not working hard enough. Still, their team needed more from all of them.

Against Buffalo, there were signs it was going to happen. St. Louis, who had only seven shots all year, had seven more. Richards had six. Lecavalier had five.

For the Lightning, that's a start. The more active these three are, the more chances they get, the more success will follow. Give St. Louis the puck and open ice, and the team's chances are still pretty good.

Five games in, and the darkness lingers.

If the Lightning is going to succeed, a star will have to light the way.