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Coach wonders how Lightning will play

The Lightning's season, on hold since Feb. 12 because of the Olympics, takes off again tonight, and Lightning coach John Tortorella has no idea where his team is going to land.

"I don't have any answers," Tortorella said.

"I just don't know what to expect as far as how they're going to look."

Will Vinny Lecavalier be thinking about how the Canadian Olympic team fell well short of a medal? Can goalie John Grahame make saves with a chip on his shoulder from playing just one game for Team USA? Is Fredrik Modin hung over from Sweden's gold-medal victory?

Those are the mental issues. Physically, is Pavel Kubina 100 percent after getting dinged in the head on Saturday? Are Brad Richards and Vinny Prospal and the rest of the Olympians tired from all the games and travel? Will they feel like going to bed during the second period because of the time change?

And what about all those who haven't played a meaningful game in 17 days?

"I don't know how we're going to react coming in off of this," Tortorella said. "That's my concern."

Even though most of the Lightning players have not played since Feb. 11 and spent the past week practicing as if it were training camp, tonight is nothing like the opening game of the season.

The Lightning immediately jumps into the deep end of the NHL season. It has 24 games left and cannot afford to ease back into the season, not with a playoff spot on the line.

The Lightning's playoff position (sixth in the East and nine points ahead of Toronto for the eighth and final playoff spot) is not as precarious as it was six weeks ago. But that could change in a hurry if it hits the snooze button for a few games.

"Our guys know what is expected here," Tortorella said. "They know how important this first game back is. I don't think we're going to have a problem (as far as being mentally sharp). And if we do, it's just wrong. The mind-set will be there.

"I don't know physically how some of them are going to feel. We can't control that. They can't. But as far as a mind-set, that's something an athlete can control."

It appears the Lightning is ready to put the Olympics and the break back on the shelf and get ready for the sprint to the finish line.

"We're going to have to switch gears quickly," Lecavalier said. "Twenty-four games. It's a lot of games, but they'll go by quick. You have to be ready for all of them. Every one.

"We have to be ready. It's not a choice. We have to do it. We have to move on. The Olympics are over. The next Olympics is 2010. You have to forget about that and get ready for our next game. That's (tonight)."

Tortorella just wants to get through tonight's game with a victory. Then the Lightning does not play again until Saturday. He probably will give the team a day or two off and still have time to reteach the Lightning system and break any bad habits the Olympians picked up in Italy.

Those who didn't go to Italy have spent the past six days going through the toughest practices of the season just to get back into shape.

"They came back in pretty good shape," Tortorella said. "They're in better shape now. They want to play. To be honest, I'm not sure what I'm worried about more right now: (the non-Olympians) being so stale from doing too much practicing or the (Olympians) who are just trying to travel over here (from Italy)."

One player Tortorella is not worried about is Grahame, who expressed disappointment over playing only one game for the Americans.

"He's not disappointed. He's (ticked) off," Tortorella said. "I want him (ticked) off. I think it's fantastic for the Tampa Bay Lightning. To me, there's nothing better than an aggravated player, and Johnny is aggravated."

Around 10:30 tonight, Tortorella might be aggravated, too. Or relieved. He just does not know.

"We'll be fine," defenseman Dan Boyle said. "We know what is at stake. The focus definitely will be there. We know how important this is."

THE PLAYOFF CHASE

The Eastern Conference standings with record, points, games left. The division winners and next five teams make the playoffs:

RECORD PTS GL

1. Hurricanes

+39-19-4 82 25

2. Senators

+ 37-14-5 79 26

3. Rangers

+ 35-15-8 78 24

4. Sabres 36-15-5 77 26

5. Flyers 33-16-9 75 24

6. Lightning 32-22-4 68 24

7. Devils 30-22-6 66 24

8. Canadiens 26-22-8 60 26

9. Maple Leafs 27-25-5 59 25

10. Thrashers 26-26-6 58 24

11. Bruins 24-24-10 58 24

12. Islanders 25-27-4 54 24

13. Panthers 22-27-8 52 25

+ Division leaders

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