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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Lightning ready to put up a fight
Coach and players agree a tougher style of play is a key element in a winning season.
By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published October 3, 2006
TAMPA - General manager Jay Feaster said the Lightning is at its best when players battle for every puck and every inch of ice.
Coach John Tortorella and the players said so, too. It was, they agreed, the essence of the team that won the 2004 Stanley Cup.
Another thing on which they agreed: The Lightning did not do enough of it last season.
"I'm not going to say we were an easy team to play," Feaster said Monday, "but the identity of being team tough wasn't what it was."
"It's about playing hard and being a hard team to play against, and that's where I think we fell off last year," Tortorella said. "This year we need to be more business-like. It's about being tougher in all areas."
But what is playing tough?
It used to be measured by how a check rattled the glass or how fast a player could knock the snot out of an opponent who ran over a teammate.
And while there still is a place for that, the generally kinder, gentler NHL, with its instigator and anti-obstruction rules, has made much of that obsolete.
Toughness, then, as the Lightning defines it, is in a sense more a function of hard work than those hard knocks.
For Tortorella, it is most important in terms of puck possession.
Being tough, he said, is protecting the puck in the defensive zone when all avenues for getting it out are closed. It is being first in the corners, winning the puck in the neutral zone, blocking shots.
"Those are the things that make you a tough team to play," Tortorella said.
Defenseman Cory Sarich agreed, though he said it starts with a "relentless" forecheck.
"It's easy to defend against a team that wants to pass the puck all night," he said. "But the ones that keep coming and dump and chase and run you into the ground, that can be tough in and of itself."
Still, sometimes it is best to get back to basics.
"We definitely need to be more physical," defenseman Dan Boyle said. "We didn't take the body enough. That was one of our weaknesses last year. Even though we're not the biggest team in the league, we need our guys to be banging."
But that is where it gets complicated.
"You need the hitting when it presents itself," Tortorella said. "The important part of hitting is understanding the momentum of a game."
As Sarich said, "There are nights when it's easier to get on the attack. It's the nights when you are stalemated and things aren't going your way, those are the nights you have to battle through and sometimes it takes a physical presence."
The Lightning has plenty of players to take that role.
Rookie wing Nick Tarnasky made the roster because he is willing to battle. Center Vinny Lecavalier has said bashing bodies spurs his game, and at 6-feet-6, 227 pounds, one would think Nikita Alexeev could move a body or two.
Defenseman Luke Richardson and wing Ruslan Fedotenko have that element to their games as does Sarich, whose pasting of Detroit's Boyd Devereaux was the hit of the preseason.
The problem is the new anti-obstruction rules.
It used to be a player could miss a check and still slow an opponent by tugging a jersey or hooking him with a stick. Now that is a penalty. Miss a check, then, and you have taken yourself out of the play.
Tortorella said players do the same when blindly retaliating against on-ice agitation.
"Part of being tough is taking a hit and not retaliating and sitting in the (penalty) box," he said. "I know the fans and media get upset when they think you should retaliate, but some of the mental toughness you have to take in with a team is to take that and maybe take a penalty and score on the power play.
"Do I want our players to stick up for one another? Absolutely. But there are so many things going on with penalties, you have to be careful. Sometimes being tough is sucking it up and scoring on a power play."
Considering the Lightning's special teams play last season, the team could use more of that, too.