Winning Ways Loosen Locker Room Mood
It’s the high-intensity music pulsating through the background. It’s the smiles on players’ faces. It’s even just the willingness to sit with a few more reporters for a few more minutes, even if it is to answer the same questions again.
Such is the difference a home victory against a legitimate playoff contender makes in a locker room. Rather, make that the difference a potential season-changing turnaround makes in a locker room.
“For one, we’re winning, so that helps with the energy you’re seeing here,” Tampa Bay goaltender Mike Smith said. “For another, we played our best game of the year against a great team.”
Smith was referring to Thursday’s convincing 4-1 victory over Philadelphia at the St. Pete Times Forum, an effort etched with stellar goaltending and a three-goal blitz in the span of just 2:03 of the second period. The victory was the Lightning’s seventh in the past 12 games and its importance could be easily seen in the team’s post-game locker room.
“For us to show that intensity after a 10-day road trip is amazing,” Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier said. “We went through a lot at the beginning of the season, but we’re playing very well now. The guys are much happier in here, because hockey is fun again.”
Most players would agree that wasn’t the case as little as three weeks ago.
Earlier this season, the Lightning was mired near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, having difficulty scoring and frustrated by a seemingly never-ending string of one-goal defeats. The post-game scene more closely resembled a morgue, with players sitting in front of their lockers fighting back frustration just long enough to answer a few questions and Interim Head Coach Rick Tocchet speaking of missed opportunities and the difficult task of regaining his team’s confidence.
Throughout however, one staple remained the same. Tocchet proved to be the Lightning’s steady hand when they needed it most. Following the victory over the Flyers, the coach said the recent winning streak is just a matter of following what he’s preached all along.
"When you love guys and you play with them, when you win, people stay together," Tocchet said. "That's a good rallying cry, whatever it takes to get guys playing the same way."
Smith echoed his coach’s words.
“Since Toch took over, we knew it wouldn’t happen overnight, but we knew it would happen,” he said. “Now you’re seeing the difference he’s made for this team.”
Now the question remains, how far can the Lightning’s resurgence take them?
An almost impossible thought three weeks ago, Tampa Bay resides just nine points behind division-rival Carolina for the East’s eighth playoff spot with nearly half a season remaining. But for all the togetherness the Lightning have shown in overcoming a well-publicized coaching change, a horrendous start and subsequent turnaround, this is where players finally differ.
“This is not the time to start thinking playoffs,” veteran right winger Mark Recchi said. “We’ve just got to keep playing and then we’ll hopefully be at a point where we can see the other teams in front of us and make a push. We have no room for error, so there’s no reason to start thinking about the last game of the season yet.”
Smith couldn’t disagree more.
“Obviously you’ve got to think about [making the playoffs], because that’s always the goal,” he said. “The next few games are going to be a big stretch for us.”
Regardless of viewing playoff talk as premature or a tactical motivational tool, the Lightning have played themselves back into second-half post-season relevance. And for center Ryan Craig it took just one sentence to sum it all.
"Winning," he said, "solves a lot of problems."