QUEBEC CITY — Lightning coach Guy Boucher had a simple question for his players during Friday's practice at the Pepsi Colisee.
"Are we good enough yet?"
"No," came an answer from someone in the group surrounding him along the boards.
Responded Boucher: "We are nowhere near where we want to go."
It was classic Boucher, who in the past week, players said, increased sharply the pace and intensity of practices as the team builds toward its Oct. 7 season opener at Carolina.
The idea is for Boucher's self-described "relentless" kind of hockey to become second nature. The question-and-answer sessions sprinkled throughout Tampa Bay's grueling 90-minute workouts are another way to get rid of what the coach calls "traces of summer."
"You forget how hard you worked to get where you were the previous year and the details of the game," Boucher said.
"My job is to make sure the players are in the right state of mind, that they understand expectations are extremely high and that the standard for today is high but the standard for tomorrow is even higher. I have to make sure my actions and words translate that every day."
Boucher began putting the hammer down on Monday, players said, one day after an off day and the day the team left on a six-day road trip that ends with tonight's preseason finale against the Canadiens.
"That was a tough practice. It really was," captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "It was almost, I don't want to say a shock to the body, but it was really that hard. It was like, 'This is how we're supposed to practice.' He wants us to be faster. It's game execution. That's what we're doing."
Players clearly have bought in.
Friday's practice was high tempo. Players added to the atmosphere by yelling to each other where to go, what to do. When there was a letdown or gaffe, Boucher was quick, and loud, to correct.
There also remains the almost comical, but laudable, display of players racing to surround Boucher when he calls them with his whistle.
Forward Tom Pyatt, who played for Boucher in 2009-10 with AHL Hamilton, said he knew what to expect, but "it's the most intense training camps I've ever been part of. … He's never satisfied. He always wants more. He doesn't want anyone wasting time in practice or taking it easy."
Said Boucher: "We forget the end of the year is a long process and we have to respect that there are steps in that process and that we're beginning that process. We're not going to start where we were at the end of last year. It's important we understand that and get back on track."
As practice ended, Boucher gathered the players and asked for things they had done well.
"I'm listening," he said.
The answers: stopping in front of the net after a shot, getting sticks into passing lanes.
What fell short? Boucher had a simple answer: battling in front of the crease.
"Remember," he said, tapping his stick on the ice, "we have to bear down."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]