Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The game story
Maple Leafs 4, Lightning 3 (SO)

A ton of work goes into those little game recaps in your morning paper.

(That is, if you even have one anymore.)

The Maple Leafs were on the ice for their usual morning skate at 10:30 a.m. on New Year's Day, and the Lightning came out soon after that. Teams' only media availability before game time takes place in the 10 or 15 minutes after these short skates, and I stuck around to hear what the coaches and a few players had to say.

Things aren't good in Tampa. In fact, they're downright ugly. I think you could take one tour of the Lightning dressing room and pretty accurately peg their positioning in the standings (which, after another loss, remains right at the bottom of the Eastern Conference).

Brad Richards: "This is a huge road trip for us. This could be the biggest trip of the season for us. It is right now anyway. It could end up being the season. We're very aware of that."

He was then asked about a team meeting they'd had earlier in the week.

"We've lost eight out of 10, so obviously we've got to talk about something. We've just got to figure out how everybody feels — sometimes you go through those bad weeks and the week goes by so quick you don't even know what happened. You want to just get a chance to sit down together."

Richards didn't have a good game, and he's in the midst of a rotten season. He's on pace for 70 points, but is dead last in the NHL in plus minus at minus-23.

Only three more seasons at $7.8-million.

When you cover a game and the Lightning are involved, the one person you're going to want to talk to is coach John Tortorella. Aside from Brian Burke and maybe Brett Hull, he's the most quotable fellow in the game.

Tortorella's postgame thoughts: "One (point) is better than nothing, but it’s still not good enough. Our top players have to play better, they have to step up. Our third and fourth lines played well, but our top two lines were outplayed by their top players."

"Their top guys outplayed our top guys ... that’s why you walk away with one point and not two. Our team, in general, has to learn to get out of this (losing streak). You have to play at a different level. Are we doing that? Not even close ... not even close."

"We’ll mire in this until we play with some jam. Funny thing about the NHL, you have to play in the other team’s face, you have to play with some jam ... and when you do that, you find a way to win."

One player I was a little curious to hear more about was Karri Ramo, the 21-year-old netminder who has been suddenly thrust into the starter's role with the Lightning after both Johan Holmqvist and (the now-demoted) Marc Denis struggled.

Here's what I know: Ramo was Tuukka Rask's backup on Team Finland during the 2006 world juniors and was playing games in that country's top pro league at 17. Last season was his first in North America, and he was named to the AHL all-star team at age 20.

The reason we perhaps didn't see him earlier in the NHL was a pesky ankle injury that kept him out for more than a month, and Ramo's left ankle was still tightly wrapped after the morning skate. Tortorella said before the game that he liked the youngster's attitude, his fire, and the fact that Ramo's one of those indescribably "different" goaltenders, someone completely unphased by what happens around him.

"He's given us some good minutes here but we just haven't played well enough in front of him to capitalize on some of the goal that he's played," the coach said.

I didn't think Ramo was either good or bad against Toronto; he didn't particularly stand out. What he definitely is is still a work in progress, and very young.

"You guys don't bother him," Tortorella told the media horde. "No one bothers him. He has that different type personality. We're going to have some ups and downs with him as we go through here, but I think he's flat lined — he doesn't get too excited when things are going well, he doesn't get too excited when things are going bad. He just goes about his business. I think that's very important for that position."

I had a chance to catch the subway home quickly at about 1 p.m., write an early story in a few minutes, and it was back to the Air Canada Centre at 6 p.m. for a 7:30 puck drop.

Scott Clemmensen ended up being the real story, I think, if only because his first start with the Maple Leafs was a win and the fact that he's a 30-year-old veteran still looking to really stick in this league.

I knew from the piece he wrote for The Hockey News last year (about being Martin Brodeur's backup) that Clemmensen was likely a pretty interesting fellow, and that was the case in person. He's articulate and good with the media, and really seems focused on trying to turn this one-game opportunity into something a little more.

I'd be stunned if he doesn't start again Thursday against Pittsburgh.

"I think we played very well," Clemmensen said. "Two points — it was a hard win, but we got it."

He was asked about sticking with Toronto and potentially starting on Thursday.

"I've been around the block too long to know how this goes here. Vess is clearly the No. 1 guy here; it's not debatable right now. So, you know, a lot of things could happen and those things are way out of my reach and out of my control so you don't worry about them. One thing's for sure, I'm going to come and work hard and if I get the start, that's great and if I don't, I'm going to be happy with the way I played tonight and you know that's what it is. It's proving yourself everyday. You win one game, it doesn't mean anything."

"I just know that, as a player, all you can hope for is that you're given an opportunity and then it's up to you to kind of do what you will with that opportunity. I think I played well enough to warrant another opportunity, but as I said before, I'm not going to take for granted that I'm going to get one and I'm not going to take for granted that I'm not, either."

"I hope that I do get another opportunity."

He was then asked about starting the year with the Marlies.

"My whole career I've had to fight and work hard to get where I'm at. I've never been a high draft pick or a blue-chip recruit or what have you — I'm more of a blue collar type of guy. So, I knew that the limited amount of exposure that I got the past couple of years with New Jersey, I knew it was going to be very hard for teams to, over the summer, put a lot of stock in me because they didn't know anything about me. I knew I was going to have to reprove myself, no matter where I went. New Jersey knew a lot about me because I was with them; I don't think any of the other teams in the league really knew a lot about me because of lack of exposure obviously."

"I knew that having to take a step back was a very real possibility. And I knew when I signed here that they already had signed Vesa and had Andrew, so I knew that coming here that [playing with the Marlies] was going to be a very real possibility and you know I went down there ... and its been a very good experience for me. Just to get to be playing again has been great. I think I've played 15 games down there; I think that's more than I played in Jersey the last two years combined."

The postgame comments are almost always better from the side that wins, and especially when you've got a guy like Clemmensen, who hasn't been put through the media scrums ad infinitum by Game 40. Paul Ranger and Vinny Lecavalier spoke in the Lightning dressing room, but they were both those dreary, lifeless, losing-dressing-room deals that never see the light of day.

Deadlines are what make game stories difficult. For a national paper like The Globe, your story has to be sent across the country the next morning, so you have to file one story on the buzzer, jog down the hall, hop in an elevator and head to the dressing rooms, gather quotes for maybe 20 minutes and then spend another hour or so putting together more seasoned versions of the story.

It's not easy, and there's quite a process involved — especially now that the internet has made things more time sensitive than ever. On this night, here is what I ended up with.

There were quite a few of us in attendance:

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At 10:22 a.m., January 02, 2008, Blogger Wm. said...

I'm so jealous of you in the press box James. Probably because I'm relegated to watching on TSN here in Saskatchewan. After about 10 minutes I have to turn off the audio because it is not play by play commentary but just a bunch of space filler from the TSN crew.

Thanks for the great work and great stories in your blog and in the Globe. It's the first place I click in the morning.

At 10:29 a.m., January 02, 2008, Blogger PB said...

Hi James -

The Lightning are truly a mess and the Jay Feaster threats of change was just noise in the wind. He knew that he could do anything and what's worse I'd wager that the players knew too .

I caught the game last night via Glenn Healy always that morose? Man, his life must be a bitter existence. I don't think he said one positive thing (about any issue) all night.


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