Doubt could strike Bolts

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 5:16 PM ET


 Almost everything John Tortorella says these days has one aim in mind.

 Damage control.

 He did it in the post-game news conference on Monday night, when his Tampa Bay Lightning got whacked 6-2 by the Philadelphia Flyers to draw even in the Eastern Conference final at 1-1.

 And he did it again yesterday in a noon-hour conference call.

 It was not a collapse, he said. It was not an embarrassment. It was not of any lasting import whatsoever.

 Tortorella will accept what he cannot deny. It was a loss.

 And finally, under pressure, he accepted that it was a fairly decisive loss.

 "They simply outplayed us and kicked our (butts) more or less," he said. "So let's be honest about it."

 But that's as far as he would go, for the simple reason he's doing what any good coach would do in this situation. He's trying as hard as he can to make sure his players continue to believe in themselves.

 Even though he insisted "we understand the situation we're in; we've been in it before." It is simply not true.

 This is the rarefied atmosphere of the final four. Tortorella has never been here before. The Tampa Bay Lightning has never been here before. And most of the Tampa players have never been here before.

 "There's no question they understand the situation they're in," Tortorella said.

 That remains to be seen. It's quite possible Tortorella is right. After all, one of his major assets is his ability to understand his players.

 But at the same time, it must be conceded that this is the precise situation Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock wanted to create. He wanted to sow that seed of doubt in the minds of the Tampa players.

 He wanted to crank up the pressure a notch -- to make the Tampa players start wondering if they are really as good as their regular-season record indicates and whether they can do what no one has done in this post-season -- beat the Flyers in their home zoo.

 That was the pressure that Hitchcock allocated to his own team when the series began. They had to win a game on the road.

 Now Hitchcock and his Flyers have put that demand on the shoulders of the Lightning -- win on the road or your season is over.

 It's quite possible the Lightning will pass this test with flying colours. Time and again this season, the Bolts have confounded their detractors.

 But what makes the National Hockey League's post-season so intriguing year after year is its requirement for improvement in the middle of a marathon.

 It's not enough to play at the level that got you to this point -- and that's a discovery that often comes as a shock to those who haven't been through it before.

 They find themselves in the midst of the most demanding battle for supremacy of a team sport in the world, and as if that challenge isn't enough, they suddenly discover that they have to get better as it goes along.

 That's the test the Lightning faces.

 And no matter what Tortorella says for public consumption, that's a test the team has never faced before.


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