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Lightning looks to a clean slate

Coach John Tortorella says ending the funk may only come with a new season.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 3, 2001


UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Lightning players are conditioned to lose, coach John Tortorella said. And he isn't sure the necessary deprogramming can be done before the end of the season.

In fact, the coach said, the end of the season may be what helps the most.

"I think the way you get rid of that is to wipe the slate clean," Tortorella said Friday while standing in the lobby of the team hotel. "And I think it's awful tough to wipe it out at this time of year."

In other words, it may take the clean slate of a new season to break the team out of a funk that has produced nine losses in its past 11 games and a 4-19-1-1 record since Tortorella took over Jan. 6.

But Tortorella said that won't stop the coaching staff from trying to effect change; to teach the "desperation and second efforts" needed to win, and the importance of "playing within a team concept."

The Lightning fell short on both counts again in the third period of Thursday night's 3-1 loss to the Bruins at the FleetCenter. The team was outshot 13-4 after scrapping to a 1-1 tie after the second period.

And in the clearest measure of its difficulty in one-on-one battles, Tampa Bay won just 22 of 66 faceoffs (33.3 percent) in the game.

The Lightning has 18 games to redeem itself and, as Tortorella said, "finish this year with a little bit of dignity."

What better place to start than tonight's game against the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum? With the Lightning at a league-worst 41 points and New York a tick better at 42, the winner avoids the bottom of the heap.

"Obviously, you have two teams that had seasons that didn't go the way they expected," forward Brian Holzinger said. "This is a chance for us to get out of the NHL cellar. I'm sure it's going to be a pretty intense game."

"It's a pride thing any time you play right now," forward Martin St. Louis said. "We're trying to get some wins and show the NHL we're not the worst team in the league."

Of course, being the worst team in the league has a benefit. It has the best chance of securing, through a weighted lottery, one of the top two picks in the June draft and a crack at highly regarded prospects Jason Spezza and Ilja Kovalchuk.

But Tortorella said Lightning management never has suggested the team play with that in mind.

"Not at all," Tortorella said. "Whatever happens, happens. This time of year, you start to think that way, and it's a bad, bad thing."

The players, too, said that kind of thinking is anathema.

"Every guy in that dressing room has a lot of pride, and that's what we're playing for, not to mention jobs for next season," Holzinger said. "We have to look at every game as something special, and there's nothing more special than pride."

How about taking some pride in the power play, which is a comical 3-for-71 (4.2 percent efficiency) in its past 12 games? Or taking some pride in killing penalties, which has been done at an inept 73.6 percent efficiency (53 of 72) in its past 14?

How about winning on the road, something the Lightning hasn't done since a 3-1 victory over the Maple Leafs on Jan. 10, a stretch of 12 games?

Those issues, defenseman Cory Sarich said, make any opponent or the circumstances surrounding any game a non-issue.

"We're working towards improving this hockey club," he said. "It doesn't matter who we're playing. We just have to go out and try to win hockey games and concentrate on the little things."

And doing those little things could lead to the biggest thing -- wiping out a culture of losing.

"Who likes to lose?" St. Louis said. "It's tough, you know? You start losing a few in a row and it lingers. It's like a cancer."

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