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Time could be right for Lightning

The coach is optimistic, but tonight's foe, Ottawa, has pounded Tampa Bay twice.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 20, 2001


OTTAWA -- Lightning coach John Tortorella must be a charter member of the silver-lining fan club.

Good thing, too, because that's about all he has had to offer his players as Tampa Bay has skidded to four consecutive losses and eight in its past nine games.

Tortorella even acknowledged, "We're rock bottom right now."

If recent history is a guide, prospects for tonight's game against the Senators at the Corel Centre aren't much better. Ottawa has thrown Tampa Bay around like a rag doll in two previous games by 6-0 and 8-3. Yet, there was Tortorella Friday, standing in the lobby of the team hotel, weaving that lining around what seems to be a very dark cloud.

"This is a perfect time to get them," he said of the Senators. "It's a perfect time to come back against a quality team like this. It's a tremendous challenge and after everything that happened (Thursday) night, it will be good to play against a great hockey team and step up and see what we can do against them."

What the Lightning did during Thursday night's 3-1 loss to the Canadiens was shoot itself in the foot.

A lackluster offense mustered a season-low 13 shots on goal. And defenseman Andrei Zyuzin's poor choice resulted in a collision with teammate Cory Sarich, which sprung Montreal's Juha Lind on a scoring breakaway that broke a 1-1 tie with 1:45 remaining.

"We did have a major breakdown, but it's time to start growing up here a little bit," Tortorella said. "Instead of dragging, we have to get ready to go in the next game and get it done."

One might think such a performance, which clearly irked Tortorella, would have prompted a grueling Friday morning practice before the two-hour bus ride from Montreal to Ottawa.

But Tortorella said with the team in the middle of a 13-game stretch in 23 days, the players would be better served with a day off. A 30-minute team meeting was held instead.

Good idea, right wing Mike Johnson said.

"Maybe we will get more accomplished," he said. "It's not a lack of intelligence of what we're trying to do that was our downfall (Thursday) night. It was a lack of preparation and a lack of intensity in certain areas and recognition of where we were in the game."

"It's more a mental thing than it is physical," defenseman Jassen Cullimore said. "We need to get our confidence and get things worked out so we're ready to play every game. Everyone says 90 percent of the game is mental, and 90 percent of that is getting yourself prepared."

Nothing new there. Lightning players have said pretty much the same thing the entire season. Tortorella said that is because they haven't figured out how to overcome the problem.

"It's a mental toughness that has to be developed," he said. "It's easy to know what to do. It's another thing when the pressure is on to get it done."

The pressure will be enormous against the Senators. Ottawa is the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference and is 15-5-3-1 at the Corel Centre.

"You can't play in fear of a team like that," Johnson said. "You can't go out there and not mix it up. If you lay back and play timid, they're going to roll you."

Tampa Bay has some positives on which to build. Zyuzin's misstep notwithstanding, the defense played well against the Canadiens. And Kevin Weekes provided solid goaltending.

If the offense can get back to the form that produced a season-high 41 shots Tuesday against the Sabres, all of a sudden that silver lining will start looking more prominent.

"We have to look at it as a process," Tortorella said, "and say we're going to do it next time."

Tonight: Lightning at Senators

WHEN/WHERE: 7; Corel Centre, Ottawa.

RADIO: WDAE-AM 620.

THE LOWDOWN: The Lightning reassigned F Kaspars Astashenko to the IHL's Detroit Vipers and recalled LW Gordie Dwyer. ... This is the third of four meetings between the teams. The Senators won 6-0 on Oct. 27 at the Ice Palace and 8-3 on Jan. 4 at the Corel Centre. ... Lightning coach John Tortorella said he will make his goaltending decision today. ... Expect Jani Hurme to start for the Senators. It will be his fifth start of the season and first since Dec. 30. He shut out the Lightning in October. ... Ottawa's 57 points lead the Eastern Conference. The team is 20-10-3 against conference foes. ... The Lightning is 11-15-4 against the Eastern Conference. ... The Senators are a conference-best 15-5-3-1 at home. ... The Lightning has lost four straight and eight of its past nine. ... The game will showcase two of the league's top rookies: Tampa Bay's Brad Richards and Ottawa's Martin Havlat. ... The Senators will be without F Magnus Arvedson (knee), D Sami Salo (shoulder) and D Ricard Persson (ankle). ... The Senators lead the series 17-14-1 and are 9-7-0 at home. -- Compiled by DAMIAN CRISTODERO.

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