Mired in muck, but no panic from Tortorella

Published October 26, 2005

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The mud is thick. The wheels are spinning. The more they rev the engines, the more they don't seem to go anywhere.

Win one, lose one, win one, lose one. The Lightning lurches forward one day, then drifts back to the same spot the next day.

This isn't exactly the spot the Lightning thought it would be in only nine games into season and playing in the New Jersey swamps tonight against the Devils. With a 4-3-2 record against a mediocre schedule, the Lightning still is trying to find its identity, its swagger, the thing that made it the 2004 Stanley Cup champions.

It all seems to be missing, including the big stars. In fact, if you're looking for a reason why this version of the Lightning looks nothing like the old edition that ended up on a Stanley Cup, look down the stats sheet:

Brad Richards: two goals. Marty St. Louis: three points. Dan Boyle: minus-4. Fredrik Modin: zero assists. Pavel Kubina: no goals. Dave Andreychuk: no goals. Ruslan Fedotenko: two goals.

Throw out the two Vinnys (Lecavalier and Prospal) and the Lightning has scored 14 goals in nine games. And only nine of those have come at even strength.

But Lightning coach John Tortorella isn't about to compound the problem by giving up on his big sluggers. The way he sees it, his lineup is due for some long balls provided he keeps sending them up to the plate.

"Make no mistake about it, for us to compete and do the things we need to do during the regular season you have to keep your belief in your top players," Tortorella said. "But your game-breakers need to be game-breakers. You need to continue giving them opportunities to try and get themselves out of it."

That is why you likely won't see any of the big names riding the bench or sitting in the press box. So far, the only major shakeups have been scratching fourth-liners Chris Dingman and Martin Cibak in favor of a couple of rookies and moving St. Louis to the checking line.

But the St. Louis experiment lasted less than two games and he's now back with usual linemates Richards and Modin.

Tortorella keeps hoping that, suddenly, the entire puzzle will snap back into place.

"You can't scratch your macho itch and say, "To heck with you, you're out of the lineup,' " Tortorella said. "You still have to understand what is best for the hockey team."

What's best is having his scorers in a uniform and not in a suit. What's best is keeping the lines together. What's best is double-shifting his stars late in games.

What's best is not giving up hope.

"I know we have good people here," Tortorella said. "I know they care. It's when the people don't care, that's when the top guys get blown up. But I know our top guys care. I know they feel the pressure. But they have to face it head on, too, and try and get themselves out of it as quick as possible."

That's the hard part. The Lightning knows the issues, but solving them is another story.

"We just have to keep it simple," Kubina said. "Right now, the power play isn't going well and, I don't know, it's tricky. We are trying, but ...

"But we just have to go back to keeping things simple. Get the puck. Shoot it. Put it on net. Work hard. It sounds easy, but that's what it is."

So far, the Lightning has made things complicated.

It scored two goals in a tone-setting back-to-back series with Florida just days into the season. It scored three goals against a Pittsburgh team that is giving up goals by the buckets. It goofed around in Washington, let the sorry Caps hang in there and, eventually, the Caps won in a shootout.

The Lightning has played only two quality teams (Ottawa and Boston) and was blown out in both games.

Except for a game against an Atlanta team that could not dress a real NHL goalie and opening night against the so-so Hurricanes, the Lightning has looked nothing like the team that won the Cup.

"There have been instances in games when we have played like we are supposed to," Richards said. "But only instances. When you're not doing it consistently, you start losing battles and then it all snowballs downhill from there."

Then you find yourself struggling for answers.

"No one," Richards said, "likes the way this feels around here right now."

The feeling will only change when the stars start producing. Until then, Tortorella will keep tapping them on the shoulder to climb back over the boards.

"Those guys are going to get their ice time," Tortorella said. "They have to be the biggest part of this team. ... There are a lot of different situations that come into play in trying to push the buttons to get this to go."

Right now, Tortorella is trying to avoid pushing the button marked "PANIC" by keeping his stars in the lineup.