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Tortorella deserves credit for job well done

Published April 18, 2006

TAMPA - Let's put his sport on a shelf. Let's change the rules of his game. I know, let's take away his goaltender.

After that, we'll see if John Tortorella can coach, can't we?

Let's muscle up his division. Let's raise expectations. Let's weaken his defense.

How about that? Then we'll see if Torts is such a big deal, won't we?

While we're at it, let time catch up to his captain. Let's put inconsistency in front of his net. Let's throw in the Olympics and injury and doubt and a little criticism, too.

Think Torts can handle all of that?

And so a season has gone, all but a day of it, as if the twin powers of fate were having their fun with Tortorella and his Tampa Bay Lightning. A dose of frustration, a dollop of disappointment, and where are you now?

As for Tortorella, he's still standing.

Largely thanks to him, the Lightning is, too.

It has been a vexing season, and in some ways, a validating one. It has been a journey filled with dips and spins and unanswerable questions.

On the other hand, here we are.

One game to go, and the Lighting is in the playoffs.

All things considered, this was Tortorella's finest coaching performance, even better than that surf-the-avalanche performance of 2004.

Certainly, it came with the greatest degree of difficulty. No defending Coach of the Year ever had it harder.

There was the 14-month layoff and the rust it left on a team. There were the new rules, some of which aged some players before your eyes. There was the new salary cap, which cost him goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin.

There was the Stanley Cup hangover, which heightened expectations inside the room and out. There was the inconsistency of his goaltenders, which cost everyone in the building a bit of sanity. There was Dave Andreychuk, stepping away, and Marty St. Louis, stepping back, and Vinny Lecavalier, not taking enough steps forward.

There was the division, where Carolina improved by 36 points and Atlanta by 11 and Florida by eight and Washington by nine.

There were the lack of reinforcements at the trade deadline. There were the Olympics, which was like stopping for lunch halfway through a marathon.

Yet, there he was on Monday, still fussing and fuming in the middle of the ice, coaching until the last possible second.

One day to go in the regular season, and it may comfort you that Tortorella still has some profanity left in the tank. The team's practice was 18 minutes old when Torts decided he didn't like the flavor and decided to add salt. His voice echoed off the empty chairs, loud and familiar. Forty-five minutes, he kept saying. Give it a good 45 minutes.

This is drill sergeant Tortorella, a snapping and snarling, pushing and prodding ball of barbed wire. This is the guy who tells opposing coaches to shut their yaps.

A few drills afterward, a little sweat, and Torts stood with his team circled around him. This time, he was talking about a difficult season and how proud his players should feel. One more game, he told them. Give it one more game.

This was prayer meeting Tortorella, proud and prepared, filled with optimism and belief. This is the guy who, moments after a humbling loss to Atlanta, walked into a locker room upbeat and confident.

If you are wondering, both of them are real, both of them are genuine. At its most basic, this is Tortorella's job: pushing the right button for the right player on the right day. It is a moving job on an evolving team on a sport built upon ice.

"It's been a really difficult year for him, and I think he's done a hell of a job," general manager Jay Feaster said. "The most amazing thing to me are the conspiracy theorists out there. I read some clown the other day who wrote that Tortorella might lose his job. That's just mind-boggling.

"Then there is the situation with Andreychuk. My only criticism with John this year is he spent two months saying that Andy just needed time, that he would come around. The idea that John had anything to do with getting rid of Andy is absurd."

As for Tortorella, he probably prefers the criticism to credit. Torts hates articles about himself, as if he's in the witness relocation program and he's afraid of the headlines. Suggest that he's done a little bit of okay, and he will swear, as loud and as vulgar as possible, right into your notebook.

Still, when Torts talks about his coaching staff as a whole, he will allow that getting his team into a proper mind-set is 95 percent of the battle. This isn't football, he says, where the teams huddle to talk about what they're going to try to do. This is reaction and instincts.

"The most important thing is how you handle athletes," Tortorella said. "At times, this staff has handled our players very well. And at times, we've made some major mistakes. But that was true two years ago, too.

"I think our players have matured and turned into men. It's not all about kicking and yelling and peeling the paint off of the wall. You've got to understand that they care, too. We have an accountable group."

Know this about Torts, too. He was grinning a lot Monday.

He likes these duels-in-the-middle-of-town kind of situations, where all that is at stake is the way an entire season will be remembered. If the Lightning had failed to make the playoffs this year, it would have been - and should have been - dismissed as a failure for team and coach. That's okay, too.

"I think it's a great opportunity for this team," he said. "I wouldn't call this season disappointing. This is our jobs. It isn't always going to be easy. It's how you handle things that makes the difference."

Given all of that, the Lightning has managed to stay upright through a season. That, at least, is something.

For a team. For a coach.

[Last modified April 18, 2006, 01:49:20]

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