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Lightning trying to carry that wait

For a team in turmoil, one thing remains the same for the Lightning. The coach.

It's still Rick Paterson. He's still interim. And that situation could be the most tumultuous of all these days.

"It is a little weird," forward Jason Wiemer said. "Everyone wonders what is going to happen."

Everyone has been wondering for 10 days. At this rate, the Devil Rays will have a manager before the Lightning has a coach. And the Devil Rays don't play a real game for 147 days. The Lightning plays tonight.

The clock continues to tick.

"I think my first name isn't Rick anymore," Paterson joked Tuesday morning. "I think it's "Interim.' Just call me "Interim' Paterson. But like I've said all along, every coach is interim, so it's not affected anything I've done."

But is it affecting the 24 players who are 0-8-1 in their past nine games and are looking to avoid the worst winless streak in franchise history? With a week between its last game and tonight's game in Anaheim, the Lightning was expected to have a coach by now. A permanent coach. A permanent coach who actually can move into Terry Crisp's office, which has remained vacant since Crisp was fired 10 days ago.

General manager Phil Esposito returned to Tampa from Dallas on Tuesday after two days of general managers meetings in Dallas. He has spoken to former Kings coach Barry Melrose but has not resumed negotiations with Robin Burns, the agent for former Flyers coach Terry Murray.

Esposito said he likely will speak with both later this week but admitted he wants to see how the team performs under Paterson before making a decision, which should come no later than early next week.

"The players have no control over that decision, so we can't let ourselves worry about it," forward Paul Ysebaert said. "It's just like the ownership situation. Will the team be sold? When? To whom? We can't control it, so we can't worry about it. Right now we have something else to worry about, like winning a game."

The Lightning hasn't done that in 27 days. Crisp was behind the bench for the first 17 days. Paterson for the last 10. Who will be there the rest of the season?

"It doesn't matter if the coach is Terry Crisp, Rick Paterson or God, the bottom line is the players have to find a way to win," Wiemer said. "Yeah, we'd like to know who it's going to be. But right now Rick has put a good system in place, and we have to go out and execute. If we do that, we will win.

"We're at the point that regardless of the coach, we must win."

As deep as the Lightning hole is and as badly as it has played in the first 13 games of the season, Tampa Bay still can see the playoff pack.

Stretch your mind a bit and suppose the Lightning gets six of eight possible points on the four-game road trip that begins tonight. It likely would come home only two or three points out of a playoff spot. And the season hasn't reached the quarter point.

"There are 69 games left," Paterson said. "There is a lot of hockey left to play. But I told the guys that now is time to get going. There are 69 games left, but before you know it, there will be 50 games left. Then the season will be half over. Then it is getting late."

"And the points you can get now are the ones you're desperate to get in March and April. It has to start now."

Based on history, Tampa Bay couldn't have picked a more cooperative part of the schedule for getting back on track. The Lightning plays tonight in Anaheim, where it is 1-1-1 lifetime. It plays Thursday in Los Angeles, where it is 5-0. It plays Saturday in San Jose, where it is 5-0. And it plays Tuesday in Phoenix, where it is 1-0.

In addition, the players point out, the season's toughest stretch may be over. Throw out the records of Carolina and Chicago (the teams Tampa Bay has beaten) and the combined record of Lightning opponents is 68-52-26. The combined record of the next nine opponents is 48-55-26, with two teams (Philadelphia and Montreal) responsible for 16 of the victories.

"We have to take the attitude that we can win three out of four on this trip," center Brian Bradley said. "Heck, maybe even four out of four. But if we can get six points, get some confidence back, then we'll be okay. Then we'll be back home again."

The question is, who will be the coach when the team returns home? The permanent coach?

"It really doesn't matter," Bradley said. "The reason we are where we are is because the players have not performed. And the way to get out of this slump is for the players to perform. It's up to the players, not the coach "Whoever it is."

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