tampabay.com

Lightning tries to lighten mood

During a 1-7-1 skid that mirrors bad times in successful seasons, the team tries to keep spirits high.

By EDUARDO A. ENCINA
Published December 19, 2006


TAMPA - As the losses pile up and the Lightning continues to slide down the Eastern Conference standings, there haven't been many smiles during Tampa Bay's current four-game losing streak.

At times, the frustration has piqued in the form of silence and empty postgame locker rooms, as was the case after Tampa Bay's 3-2 loss to Carolina on Saturday.

So in the second half of his team's hourlong practice on Monday - before the Lightning traveled to Washington, where it faces the streaking Capitals tonight - coach John Tortorella threw two tennis balls wrapped in athletic tape onto the ice at the St. Pete Times Forum and let his players go at it.

"It was a fun time," Lightning captain Tim Taylor said. "We could all relax a little bit. I think we all needed that. We've been beating ourselves up. We've been playing pretty good. Our effort's been there, the results haven't."

The balls wildly bounced high in the air around the rink as cheers and screams filled the empty arena from the bench. The experiment offered a light moment during a frustrating stretch.

"We haven't had much fun lately, so it was a good way to break the tension," forward Marty St. Louis said. "We haven't had many laughs involved in the games so to be on the ice and have a good chuckle was a good change."

The Lightning 14-17-2 enters tonight's game at the Verizon Center on a 1-7-1 streak. The frustration is magnified because Tampa Bay isn't playing poorly, but rather is suffering untimely lapses that lead to defeat. Despite the success the team has enjoyed in recent seasons, they've been here before; interestingly, at roughly the same time of the season.

Tampa Bay has just three points (one win, one OT loss) in its past nine. During the Stanley Cup season in 2003-04, the Lightning went through a late-December stretch in which it lost four in a row and had just three points over eight games. In 2002-03, it suffered through a early-January swoon of four points over nine games, but still went on to win the Southeast Division.

"There's always a light at the end of the tunnel, but we've got to work to find the light," St. Louis said. "It's not just going to happen. We can't expect it to just happen. It happened in the past because we worked hard at it and we did the things we needed to do to win games, but it's not going to happen."

Meanwhile, general manager Jay Feaster watched the Monday's light-hearted practice and couldn't help but laugh.

"Certainly the core guys, the guys who have been here with us and who've been through it, they understand what it's about and they understand what we have to do to pull out of it," Feaster said. "That's the biggest thing."

Still, Feaster said he hasn't ruled out a trade that would "improve the hockey club." When thinking back to past struggles, he pointed out how instrumental the acquisition of Darryl Sydor was in helping the Lightning become a Cup contender. But now, with salary cap issues, it's much more difficult to work a deal.

Another opportunity to break out exists tonight.

"We know we can," Taylor said. "It's one thing knowing we can do it and actually doing it. We've talked a lot about it, and right now basically we're all talked out. There's a lot of frustration, that's for sure. We do think we can win as a team, it's just a matter of putting it together on the ice."

Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at eencina@sptimes.com