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Coach: Lightning players 'on trial'

John Tortorella and his staff want to continue teaching, but only to the players who put in the effort.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2001


BRANDON -- Lightning players should consider the rest of the season a 33-game tryout.

Those who do the right things -- such as play with energy, play to their capabilities and learn from their mistakes -- have a chance to remain part of the team. Those who don't, well, the Lightning will send them a postcard.

This is not a threat, coach John Tortorella said, but a promise.

"They are on trial," Tortorella said after Friday's practice at the Ice Sports Forum. "The players are going to make the decisions for us. Some have made decisions that we feel good about.

"The bottom line is, these guys are professional hockey players. You show up and play hard and practice hard every night or give some money back."

"It's part of the game," forward Wayne Primeau said. "You can't worry about that. If you worry about that, you're in the wrong profession. All you can do is control how you play."

Tortorella made it clear he and associate coaches Craig Ramsay and John Torchetti will not let the players fend for themselves. Practices, Tortorella said, will continue to be opportunities to teach.

Toward that end, Friday's workout focused on one of Tampa Bay's glaring shortcomings: winning the one-on-one and two-on-two battles for the puck.

It is a simple equation, forward Martin St. Louis said.

"If you win a lot of battles, they turn into scoring chances," he said. "If you lose the battles, they have the puck."

So the players paired up and passed the puck back and forth as they skated. At the whistle, they tried to steal the puck from each other.

Two-on-two and three-on-three drills followed.

Ramsay said the Lightning has enough speed to initiate those battles. Once engaged, he said, "You don't have to be the biggest guy to win those battles. You just have to be the most determined."

Here's the problem, though. The Lightning has lost eight in a row and 12 of 13 heading into tonight's game against the Panthers at National Car Rental Center.

With that in the back of their minds, players acknowledged they sometimes do not play aggressively enough, trying to avoid a mistake that leads to a goal. But that tentative play gives the opposition a little bit more room to maneuver, and that is just as bad.

The problem is acute. Tampa Bay has been outscored 16-3 in the third periods of the past seven games. In five of those games, the Lightning was tied entering the third period. In another game, its deficit was one.

"I don't know what it is," defenseman Cory Sarich said. "We're just not the same team. We really become tense in that period. We make some bad decisions. We talk about it. We know what to do. We just need to carry it out."

What the Lightning needs to do is win those individual battles.

It was doing so into the third period of Thursday's game with the Senators. But an Ottawa goal 16:48 into the period broke a 2-2 tie, which created a letdown, losses in some of those battles and another goal at 18:13 in a 5-2 loss.

Tortorella said his players panicked under the attack. So it's not surprising he said he does not think Friday's drills alone can teach the mind-set needed to win the individual battles.

"It's the character of the players," he said. "If you continue to bring it to their attention and focus on it, we hope to get to the areas to try and win the battles. They have to trust one another and trust themselves that they are doing the right things."

"Regardless of the time of the game and the score of the game, we have to go out and win those," St. Louis said. "I think that's what defines an average player from a good player. He's going to try and win every battle."

And maybe keep his job in the process.

Tonight: Lightning at Panthers

WHEN/WHERE: 7:30; National Car Rental Center, Sunrise.

TV/RADIO: Sunshine; WDAE-AM 620.

THE LOWDOWN: The Panthers are tired. Florida finished a five-game road trip Wednesday and lost to the Senators 5-4 in overtime at home Friday night. ... The Panthers are 2-8-1 in 11 games. ... The Lightning has lost eight straight and 12 of 13. ... Lightning coach John Tortorella said he will decide on a goaltender today. ... The Lightning is 7-for-100 on the power play in its past 24 games. ... The Panthers have the league's fourth-worst power play, 13.0 percent efficiency (28-for-215). The Lightning is third worst, 12.7 (32-for-251). ... The Lightning had given up the most short-handed goals (11). The Panthers were next (10). ... Florida's Pavel Bure led the NHL with 207 shots. He has 13 goals, 12 assists in 14 games against Tampa Bay. ... Florida was the NHL's most-penalized team, averaging 18.8 minutes. ... This is the third of five meetings. Tampa Bay won 2-1 Nov. 24 at the Ice Palace. The Panthers won 2-1 in overtime the next day in Sunrise. ... The Panthers lead the series 23-7-7 and are 13-2-3 at home. -- Compiled by Damian Cristodero.

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