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Lots of theories, no reasons

Published Sep. 26, 2005

Lightning digs through rubble of collapse against Toronto wondering what went wrong.

The world didn't end Tuesday night. The sun came up Wednesday, but the Lightning still was putting the pieces of the previous night back together.

"I didn't sleep much," coach Steve Ludzik said. "Not much at all."

What in the heck happened?

For the second time this season, the Lightning lined up against the Stanley Cup-contending Toronto Maple Leafs and skated stride for stride, only to lose in the final 10 minutes. Ludzik said the Lightning's 4-2 loss to Toronto on Dec. 21 may have broken a bit of the team's spirit.

If so, then Tuesday's 5-3 loss broke just about everything else.

The Lightning sprinted to a 3-0 lead. It led 3-1 midway through the third period. Then the dark cloud that never seems to be far away exploded. For the Lightning, when it rains, the other team scores. In droves.

Toronto struck for four goals, including an empty-netter, in the final 10:37.

"No matter what I tried to do, I couldn't stop the momentum," Ludzik said. "I tried so hard to slow that third period down. I tried calling timeout. I switched goalies just to give everyone an extra few seconds. Before faceoffs, I waited a few extra seconds to send out the next line. I thought of everything I could to just slow the game down, but it couldn't stop what was happening."

No one is sure what happened.

The easiest thing is to pick individual targets for the collapse.

Defenseman Jassen Cullimore made critical errors that led to the two most costly goals _ the one that started the comeback and the winner _ both scored by former Lightning Wendel Clark.

Forwards Vincent Lecavalier and Fredrik Modin were on the ice for four goals against. Defenseman Paul Mara gave Toronto's Mats Sundin just enough room for Sundin to show why he is one of the league's best players, and he scored the tying goal.

Goalie Dan Cloutier, though he allowed no soft goals, couldn't stop the bleeding with an unbelievable save.

The Lightning had a four-minute power play during which itcould have put the game out of reach before Toronto's comeback. Instead, it came up empty in three minutes before Pavel Kubina picked up a penalty.

"We did a lot of things wrong," Ludzik said. "We even reminded our defense at one point when it was still 3-1 not to jump in the (offensive) zone, not to pinch in unless you were absolutely 100 percent sure, and we still give up odd-man breaks. For 30 minutes, we outclassed them. You couldn't find a more perfect example on how to play team defense. Then, I don't know what happened."

Was it inexperience? Trying very hard not to lose instead of playing to win? Waiting to lose instead of expecting to win? Playing scared? Playing without confidence? Was Toronto simply that much better?

"I don't know what it was, but I think talking about how young we are is not an excuse anymore," Mara said. "We're 50 or so games into the season already. We've played enough that you shouldn't use youth as a reason for us losing or blowing a lead. I think it just came down to a couple of mistakes.

"Like my play against Sundin. If the puck misses the net or he doesn't make a perfect shot and the goalie stops it, no one talks about what happened. Everyone forgets it. But that doesn't change how I played it or what happened right up until he took the shot. It's just a few mistakes, and it's in the net."

Because the sun did come up Wednesday, the Lightning went back to work with a crisp 35-minute practice. Ludzik talked to a few players about some of the mistakes. He showed videotape to a player or two. He did one-on-one instruction on the ice. No yelling. No threats. He just coached.

Then he ended the practice by gathering the team at center ice.

"I told them, "Look, for 30 minutes against Edmonton (in a 7-3 loss Friday), you were the better team,' " Ludzik said. "And I said, "For 40 minutes against Toronto, you were a much better team. Now c'mon, boys, if we can play like that for 30 or 40 minutes, there's no reason we can't do it for 60.' If we play like that for 60 minutes, we're not going to lose regardless of the opponent."