Still too soon to tell what lies ahead

Published October 8, 2006

TAMPA - Here in the first halting steps of a season, it is far too soon to pass judgment. If you find yourself with a couple of concerns, however, that is understandable.

Here in the shallow end of the pool, it is much too early to answer how rough the seas might turn out to be. If you wish to discuss a few clues, that is permitted.

Here in the second game of a season, with 80 to go, it is much too difficult to come to a conclusion about just what sort of season the Lightning faces. When it comes to conjecture, however, that season also has begun.

Two games down, and really, no one knows a thing about the Lightning. Except for this:

At this rate, John Tortorella will be dead in a month.

That's the problem with a season as long and as arduous as the NHL's. The early season is simply too difficult to weigh the disappointment. It is too soon for a coach to yell, too soon for a crowd to boo and too soon for a columnist to rip.

And so it was with Tampa Bay's 3-2 loss to Boston on Saturday night, a game in which the Lightning was part terrible, part terrific, part energetic and part enigmatic. There were times players showed flashes of last year's frustrations, and times they showed promise of being able to overcome it. They came back. They fell behind. The energy was good. The power play wasn't.

So what do you believe in? The resiliency of a team that can come back from a two-goal deficit again? Or in the sluggishness that leads a team to fall behind by two goals again? Do you believe in the height of the standards? Or the height of Tortorella's blood pressure as he watches?

If you are struggling to figure what to make of this team after two games, well, welcome aboard. Tortorella, the team's coach, is sifting for clues himself. At this point, Torts admits, he has no idea what kind of team he has, what kind of locker room he has or what kind of season lies ahead.

In a way, Tortorella was looking for answers as hard as the rest of us Saturday night. By nature, he trusts practice only so much and preseason games not much more. With a revamped locker room, he still has more questions than answers.

Because of that, the loss to the Bruins had to leave a bad taste in his mouth. More than anything, Tortorella will tell you, he wants his team to be a tough night's work for the opposition every time out. He wants focus. He wants consistency.

Between you and me, he also would prefer not to lose his first game at home.

It is a different season for the Lightning. You could tell. No one raised a banner to celebrate sneaking into the eighth playoff spot last season. No one gave a speech about how Tampa Bay lasted five whole games before being bounced by Ottawa. There were no highlight clips shown about finishing second in the Southeast.

Instead, this was supposed to be the introduction of a new-and-improved hockey team. And if your checklist is anything like Tortorella's, frankly, you're going to want a little more evidence.

Goaltender? Do you think that after his years in Columbus, Marc Denis thinks he is supposed to start every game behind by two goals? It happened again against the Bruins, who scored their second goal on their sixth shot of the game. If you are counting, at that point, he had faced 17 shots on the season, and four of them had found the net. And that sound you hear in the background is John Grahame chuckling.

Okay, okay. I believe Denis is going to be better, too. He had a stretch in the second period where he was brilliant as the Lightning pulled back into a tie. Still, an awful lot is expected of Denis. You might as well start expecting it now.

The power play? What power play? The Lightning was 0-for-6 against the Bruins, who had allowed four goals in six power plays in their season opener.

The backup singers? After two games, Ryan Craig is on pace to score 120 goals. If you are looking for positive signs, he's a pretty good one. So far, he looks like the guy who will score the dirty-work goals Fredrik Modin used to be responsible for. I don't know what kind of skate Craig wears on his right foot, but if I'm Tortorella, I'm making it mandatory.

The stars? Yes, the Lightning asks a lot out of Vinny Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Marty St. Louis. That isn't going to change.

In two games, however, only Lecavalier has a goal, and that was in the shootout against Atlanta. If the Lightning is going to be successful, these guys have to be the Three Musketeers - or, at least, the Marx Brothers - along the way.

"I think they understand what it's about," Tortorella said. "I think they understand the scrutiny of a (salary) cap world. I'll tell you this: They can't be good players every night; they need to be great players every night. There is no next year or working to it. It's right now. Right now.

"That's what this organization needs. I don't want to hear about playing one game out of five and dominating. We need three or four out of five. That's the lay of the land in a cap world. And they know that."

Two games down, and we know this. The stars have to be better. The goaltender has to be stronger. The results have to be different.

Otherwise, too soon has a habit of turning into too late before you know it.