tampabay.com

Adversity catches up to champions

By TOM JONES
Published November 14, 2005


General manager Jay Feaster knew it was going to be one of those seasons when the Lightning finished dead last in the draft lottery.

"I knew as soon as that pingpong ball came up on July 23 and we had the last pick that the hockey gods were going to turn against us," Feaster said. "They were going to catch up to us after winning the Stanley Cup. I knew then that this was going to be a season of adversity."

Now we'll really get to see what Feaster and coach John Tortorella are made of because, for the first in their Lightning careers, the sailing is not smooth.

Throw out their first couple seasons. The Lightning was bad. The team was building, and there were no expectations. Advancing to the second round of the 2003 playoffs was a major accomplishment.

Since then, what has gone wrong?

The Lightning had no major injuries during the 2003-04 Cup season. It had a hiccup or two but still easily won the division and finished first in the Eastern Conference. The only time it trailed in a playoff series was Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final, and just getting that far surpassed even the wildest dreams of the most die-hard Lightning fan.

Now? The team is in a six-game free fall. Other than the opening-night victory against Carolina, the Lightning hasn't beaten a real good team. The special teams haven't been special. The goaltending has been up and down. The injury bug finally arrived, first to goalie Sean Burke and now to MVP Marty St. Louis.

"Our mettle is being tested," Feaster said.

Things, quite frankly, are a mess.

"I know we have a group of guys that cares deeply," Feaster said. "And we have a coaching staff that cares deeply. And I care deeply. I think every one of us is trying to do whatever we possibly can."

Problem is, there isn't much Feaster can do. Trades are next to impossible in today's salary-cap NHL, and it's way too early to talk about something that drastic anyway.

Meantime, Tortorella has tried a bunch of things. He scratched captain Dave Andreychuk for a game. He started a rookie (Brian Eklund) in goal. He banished two veterans (Chris Dingman and Martin Cibak) to the press box while playing two kids. He has reshuffled the lines again and again. He has gone easy and hard on the players.

The Lightning continues to look for an answer.

"We're going to work our way through it," Feaster said. "When you're dealing with guys who care, as I know these guys do, it's a matter of sticking together and working through it. And we will. I have no question about that."