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Marty? Brad? Vinny? Who takes charge?
With time running out, the Lightning needs one (or more) to be a catalyst.
By TOM JONES
Published April 13, 2006
RALEIGH, N.C. - Who will it be? Who will the Lightning turn to now?
The season is on the line. A playoff spot, the team's very reputation is at stake. Three games remain. Victories are required. A star, a player who volunteers to take his game to another tier and bring his teammates along for the ride, is needed.
When the Yankees need a clutch hit, they look to Jeter. When the Lakers need a bucket, they give the ball to Kobe. When the Steelers need a big play, they call Hines Ward's number.
Great teams have great leaders. Think of Joe Namath's guarantee. And Mark Messier's guarantee. Every team needs a Havlicek to steal the ball or a Reggie to stir the drink by cracking three homers in a game.
Who is that player for the Lightning? Or, more important, does the Lightning have such a player?
"I make no bones about it: Your best players have to be the focal point this time of year," coach John Tortorella said. "I don't care which one or two or three. Someone needs to make a statement here and say, "Hop on my back. I'm going to pull you through.' That's not to add more pressure, but that is the job of your top players, to say, "Jump on my back."'
The Lightning has many candidates, but when you think about it, is having too many the same as having none? There is defending MVP Marty St. Louis. There's Vinny Lecavalier and Brad Richards. There is Fredrik Modin and Vinny Prospal. All are capable of taking over a game. All have done it at key times in the past.
But if tonight's game reaches a critical stage, will someone step up or will everyone wait for someone else to do it? Will Richards be looking to St. Louis, who is looking to Lecavalier, who is looking to Modin, who is ... you get the idea.
"I think the other night (in a 6-2 loss to Atlanta), we had guys looking for someone instead of saying, "I'm going to be the guy,"' Tortorella said. "I think it's important for your top players to say, "I am the guy' and not look for another top guy."
Oddly enough, at a time when the Lightning needs a complete team game, Tortorella is hinting that a few players must start behaving a little more selfishly.
"We addressed that the last couple of days," alternate captain Tim Taylor said. "We all want to make the big play. It all comes down to wanting to be the guy on the ice. You have to be the difference-maker when you're on the ice."
That doesn't necessarily mean zigzagging through six guys and scoring a goal. It doesn't always mean making the picture-perfect pass. It means chipping the puck out of the zone. Or throwing a hit in the corner. Or blocking a shot.
"All the little details," Taylor said. "Everybody doing that is what makes for a team win."
Eventually, however, someone needs to jump over the boards wearing a red cape. For example, on Tuesday night with their playoff hopes dwindling, the Maple Leafs turned to their leader, Mats Sundin, who responded with four goals and two assists in an overtime victory.
"You see what Mats Sundin did, and that's what you need," Tortorella said. "You look at a Tim Taylor, go back to (Dmitry Afanasenkov). They can't be the ones who are going to save us. But they're going to be the ones that make that play to get the puck out of the zone, block that shot killing a penalty. You need that, too."
Here's what we're talking about. During the 2003-04 Cup final, the Lightning needed a jump. Lecavalier provided it by fighting Calgary's Jarome Iginla in Game 3. That, St. Louis said, inspired everyone to grab their work boots and hard hats. Before the series was over, Richards had his second winning goal, St. Louis saved the season with an overtime goal in Game 6 and Ruslan Fedotenko scored two goals in the deciding Game 7.
"I know it comes down to your best players, no doubt," St. Louis said. "We're all aware of that. We don't need anyone to remind us that. We know that coming to the rink every day that there is a lot on the line. I don't think anyone is sitting back waiting on someone else."
As Taylor said, the Lightning roster is full of big-game performers, players who have won Stanley Cups and World Championships and Olympic medals. He believes someone will stand up. He doesn't know who exactly, but someone will because the team has too many candidates. Once one player steps up, the rest will follow.
"We're not looking for one guy to be the hero," Taylor said. "We're looking for 20 guys to be the heroes."
But it starts with one. Will the Lightning find one? Who will it be?