SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Rick Tocchet could not recall exactly when his lightbulb moment occurred, but he knows the difference it has made in how he handles his players.
It was three or four weeks ago, he said. The Lightning was losing, he believed some players were not doing their jobs and, "I personally was getting too negative.
"Instead of being positive in certain situations, I would take the negative route because the losses were bugging me. As a coach, the one thing you have to learn is when to push the buttons."
It seems the first-time coach is starting to push the right ones as well. Tampa Bay enters tonight's game at Phoenix on a 4-2-1 streak. And an informal poll of players indicates Tocchet, still considered interim after taking over Nov. 14 for the fired Barry Melrose, has won their trust.
"I think they've got their coach," wing Mark Recchi said. "They don't have to look any further. He's handled himself very well. He has the respect of the players, and he deserves it."
"I've been very pleased with the team's response to him," general manager Brian Lawton said. "It bodes well for the future."
Tocchet said Job 1 was instilling better on-ice structure. It is a four-pronged approach with associate coach Mike Sullivan, assistant Wes Walz and roving goaltenders coach Cap Raeder.
Sullivan handles the defense and penalty kill and runs parts of practices and meetings. Walz works one on one and breaks down opponent video. All are involved in game-day strategy.
"Some coaches, they want to do it all. That's not my style," Tocchet said. "I utilize those guys big time. Mike Sullivan can run a meeting. Some coaches always have to have the last word. I really don't."
"They've all been great," captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "It's a great mix on the coaching staff with guys who know the game."
Despite a 6-11-6 record under Tocchet, there are tentative signs of a payoff for a team with a league-low 11 victories. Only twice in the past seven games have opponents reached 30 shots, something that happened 15 times in 16 games under Melrose.
The change is not lost on Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky, for whom Tocchet was an assistant before coming to Tampa Bay.
"They're a hard-working team,'' Gretzky said. ''I know they're going to play the way he played and the way he coaches. It's one way, and that's hard and intense. We're going to have our hands full because they're a team playing much better in the past 15, 20 games."
After Tocchet took over, the team went 2-9-5. That is when he said he slipped toward the dark side, especially behind the bench, which did nothing but create tension during a game.
"I had to change my attitude and enjoy the ride more," he said.
Now, instead of "being (mad) and yelling," he said, "I'll be more positive reinforcement; positive but stern at the same time."
Tocchet said he tries to be even calmer during practice.
"I may not be happy, but I take the approach of it's a challenge," he said. "How do you get this guy to play better? How do you get the team to play better? That's what I've enjoyed most."
"It's a growth process," Lawton said. "It was a tough circumstance to get everyone on the right page and moving in the right direction."
"He's done a remarkable job," Recchi said. "All three guys, but Toc is the head guy. They pay attention to detail. They're honest and straightforward with us. I hope they reward him."
NOTES: Backup goalie Olie Kolzig, who has missed seven games, said his strained left arm muscle still is "weak" and he will be out until at least Monday's game at Los Angeles. … Defenseman Paul Ranger is expected to return after missing three games with an upper-body injury. … Forward Paul Szczechura (leg) seems more likely for Friday at Anaheim.