Bolts embrace No. 1 role

Updated: April 14, 2004, 1:47 PM ET
By E.J. Hradek | ESPN The Magazine

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Since entering the NHL with the Buffalo Sabres in 1982, Tampa Bay Lightning forward Dave Andreychuk has been a postseason fixture. Including this year, his teams have qualified for the playoffs in 18 of his 22 seasons. In that time (142 playoff games and counting), Andreychuk has learned a lot.

In 1998, for example, as a member of the New Jersey Devils, Andreychuk learned a hard lesson about being a No. 1 seed: Don't take anyone -- especially the No. 8 seed -- for granted. That spring, a hungry young bunch of Senators sent the top-seeded Devils on an early vacation.

Six years later, Andreychuk is a member of another top-seeded team, and the 40-year-old is doing his best to prevent his teammates from learning anything the hard way.

"I've been in this situation before where I've lost to (an) eighth seed because you're not ready to play," said Andreychuk, after taking a 2-1 series lead over the eighth-seeded New York Islanders with a solid 3-0 win in front of a hostile crowd on Monday. "The series is not over by a long shot. We've just given ourselves a better chance. That's all we've done."

Andreychuk acknowledged that he and his teammates do carry the weight of higher expectations into this postseason. Last year, the Lightning were the No. 3 seed, courtesy of their first Southeast Division title. They beat the Washington Capitals, 4-2, in the first round before falling to the Devils in five games.

"It is different than last year," said Andreychuk. "This year, we aren't going to sneak up on anybody. We are the No. 1 seed. The guys have played well enough to get that seed, but there is pressure that comes with it. This is something new to a lot of the guys. Now, we're the one who's being hunted. It's a good feeling, but we have to respond to it. Right now, we've got a long way to go."

Another important member of the Lightning welcomes the pressure of finishing on top.

"Yeah, there are higher expectations," said right winger Martin St. Louis, who won the Art Ross Trophy as the league's leading scorer with 94 points. "As players, we want to meet those expectations. Do we feel the pressure? I'm sure we do, but that's what you want. You want to be in that situation. You want to be on the team that's supposed to win. This is what it's all about. I say, bring on the pressure. If you don't want that pressure, I don't know what you're doing in this game."

After splitting the first two games of the series on home ice, Andreychuk felt he and his teammates could be a lot better. So, as team captain, what was his message coming into Game 3?

"We had to put a little more effort in," Andreychuk said. "We had to raise the level of our game. Obviously, we had a great regular season, but we have to get to that next level. In the first two games, we didn't play very well. In Game 3, we played a little bit better, especially in the first period."

Lightning coach John Tortorella had a similar message.

"Hey, it's really a simple game," Tortorella said. "I thought we needed to get out of the gear of playing with regular-season intensity and play with playoff intensity. And I thought we saw some of that in Game 3.

"You can rip apart a series and go through all the line changes and power play and penalty killing," Tortorella continued. "It eventually comes back to being a simple game. Who's going to compete? Who's going to win certain battles at key times of the game? On Monday night, I thought we did it for the majority of the game."

To St. Louis, though, the message in the locker room was very personal to every single player.

"We wanted to show one another how desperate we were to win," St. Louis said. "We wanted to find out how hungry we were. We wanted to find out if we're satisfied with a 106-point regular season or if we want to take it a step further. We wanted to show one another, not the other team, not the fans, but we wanted to show one another."

The win certainly took a little pressure off the Lightning as they prepare for Game 4.

"We didn't want to go down 2-1," said Andreychuk, who's hoping to finally get his name on the Stanley Cup. "We wanted to get the home ice advantage back in our favor. They (the Islanders) are a team that battles very hard. For us, this was a key victory."

With two wins down and two wins needed to advance to the second round, Andreychuk said the Bolts' focus doesn't extend beyond Wednesday night.

"Obviously, Game 4 is the most critical game of the series," said Andreychuk. "For us, we have some momentum. We have to continue that momentum. It's going to be tough to win again in their building, but we want to continue to play the way we did in Game 3. Taking a back seat is not what we want. We want to keep going forward. What we've done, what we've accomplished so far, doesn't mean anything. We've got to go out and worry about Game 4."

Spoken like a man who has been down this playoff road a few times before.

Around the Hrink

  • Islanders forward Jason Blake, who made a dramatic return by scoring two goals in Game 2 after missing the last six games with an ankle injury, took an unnecessary (read: dumb) boarding penalty at the 1:50 mark of the first period. Blake slammed defenseless Lightning defenseman Darryl Sydor (who was on his knees facing the boards after being cross-checked to the ice by Isles center Dave Scatchard) into the boards. Blake could have easily been assessed a five-minute major for the cheap shot. The Lightning took advantage of Blake's poor judgment when Brad Richards netted a power-play goal at 3:40. The goal seemed to take a lot of starch out of both the sellout crowd and the Islanders, who never really recovered.

  • The Lightning played most of Game 3 with just five defensemen. Jassen Cullimore was forced to leave the game at the 5:40 mark of the second period with the dreaded "upper-body" injury after taking a hit from Isles D-man Roman Hamrlik. He didn't return and is questionable for Game 4. Also, Sydor played through some pain. Already shaken up by Blake's nasty first-period hit, he doubled over in pain after a clean hit by Isles forward Oleg Kvasha in the third period. Sydor appeared to have some sore ribs, but managed to finish the game.

  • Islanders coach Steve Stirling thought every one on his bench was "a touch flat" in Game 3. With that in mind, he might decide to dress rugged right wing Steve Webb for Game 4. Webb has the knack of jump-starting the team and the home crowd with a big hit. He has yet to dress in this series. Also, Stirling might consider giving veteran center Cliff Ronning a little playing time at even-strength. Ronning was used primarily on the power play, getting just 2:02 of ice time in even-strength situations.

  • Like last season, the Lightning brought their motivational signage on the road. Posted in the visitor's dressing room at the Nassau Coliseum were the following slogans. "Good is the enemy of great." "Don't think ... Do!" And the always popular, "Safe is death."

    EJ Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send EJ a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

    E.J. Hradek

    Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
    E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.
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