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Tampa Bay Lightning coach leaves stars out of his praise

TAMPA — Center Paul Szczechura and wings Steve Downie and James Wright.

Coach Rick Tocchet made a point Tuesday of saying those players — the oldest 24 and with only 163 NHL games among them — have been the Lightning's best forwards the past five games.

Consider it another reminder to stars Vinny Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, Ryan Malone, Alex Tanguay and Jeff Halpern that they have to be better.

The first came Monday when Tocchet benched the lot of them for the last seven minutes or so of Monday's disheartening 3-0 loss to the Capitals.

Next came a tough practice Tuesday at the St. Pete Times Forum and a shuffling of lines. But the kicker was Tocchet's praise for the youngsters, who had made up a grinding, disciplined line.

"Szczechura (age 24), Downie (22), those guys have been our best forwards the past five games, James Wright (19)," he said. "It's no coincidence I don't think they ever get scored against."

This wasn't some off-the-cuff stuff. Tocchet had plenty of time to think about it. He did not address reporters after Monday's game because he was "tied up" talking with a player.

So when Tocchet said Tuesday the benchings were "on the leaders" and "they have to understand we have to play a certain way," he wasn't kidding.

Which brings us to tonight's game with the Oilers, a big one before a six-game road trip.

If Tuesday's combinations are an indication, Szczechura and Downie were promoted to play on a line centered by Stamkos. Tanguay, who was with Lecavalier, was demoted to a line with Halpern at center and Wright.

Lecavalier will center a line with Malone and St. Louis.

"Hopefully," Tocchet said of splitting Szczechura's line, "that will rub off on some other guys."

What Tocchet really wants to rub off is the idea of sticking with the game plan when things go awry.

Tampa Bay played a good first period against Washington. But when Alex Ovechkin scored after a turnover by Stephane Veilleux, "we unraveled," Tocchet said.

"They score a goal, and we start doing stuff," he added. "You can't be out there 45 seconds and throw the puck blind in front. We're trying plays that are not there. There's no excuse to do stupid things 22 minutes into a game. It's frustrating, because if we played the same way (as in the first period), we have a chance to win."

Tocchet said his anger is not about fumbling a puck: "I can live with that. But when you start going against the team concept … when you have a couple of guys doing their own thing, it's going to break down your tactics."

The benchings? "It's the only bullet coaches have."

Halpern said he didn't mind being part of an example. "It's a message to play better and respond," he said. "I like to think I'll be able to respond in a certain way. (Tocchet) obviously expects more, and we want to give him that."

"He's sending a message," Stamkos said. "There's no yelling, no screaming, no words. It's just if you're not going to compete hard, there's going to be consequences."

Tampa Bay Lightning coach leaves stars out of his praise 12/08/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 9, 2009 8:05am]

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