A Star At Last? Maddeningly inconsistent in the past, Vincent Lecavalier was brilliant in leading Tampa Bay into the conference finals

May 09, 2004

Vincent Lecavalier owns a swank, 1,700-square-foot town house in
Tampa's Harbour Island, which is not to be confused with the cozy
time-share he has at Le Chateau Bow Wow, the doghouse run by
Tampa Bay Lightning coach John Tortorella. Lecavalier has
vacationed there periodically during Tortorella's three-plus
years (well-deserved stays, incidentally), although the
24-year-old center with matinee looks and prime-time skill might
have extricated himself for good last week by personally wrecking
the Montreal Canadiens in a second-round playoff series. An
elegant skater whose play on the periphery too often has
resembled a Gallic shrug, Lecavalier displayed a visceral
commitment as he scored five goals and added two assists while
barging into traffic and the headlines.

As Tampa Bay advanced to the Eastern Conference finals with its
offense, defense and goaltending all in impressive form, the
Lightning's top dog was having his day.

There is a litany of reasons why players end up in the Red Woof
Inns that dot hockey's landscape, and Jacques Demers,
Lecavalier's first NHL coach, enumerates many: not playing the
system, prolonging shifts, lollygagging, making poor decisions
with the puck, taking dumb penalties, not doing enough. Calgary
Flames center Craig Conroy, who was in coach Darryl Sutter's
doghouse early in the season, offers an addendum: trying to do
too much. "For me, that's taking chances offensively," Conroy
says. "The coach sees you leaving the zone early or cheating,
trying to make plays that aren't there ... well, you think you're
doing it for the betterment of the team, but when you watch the
tape and Darryl talks about it in the newspapers, you
understand." Conroy has hounded the opposition throughout
Calgary's surprising playoff run, reinforcing his worth with
relentless checking and the lone goal in last Saturday's 1-0 win
over the Detroit Red Wings, which gave the voracious Flames a
three-games-to-two lead in their West semifinal series.

This has been the postseason in which kennel-club members have
made it back into their teams' good graces: Colorado Avalanche
wing Teemu Selanne, the erstwhile Finnish Flash, who looked
reborn against the San Jose Sharks after being a healthy scratch
in Game 2; Detroit goalie Curtis Joseph, who was sent to the
minors earlier this year but who, heading into Game 6 in Calgary,
had been steadfast since becoming the Wings' starter midway
through the first round; and Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov
(below), who has shaken off a late-season slump to anchor San
Jose.

For big-ticket forwards, sometimes the only redemption is a
scoring binge, like the six goals in two playoff series that
absolved Montreal right wing Alexei Kovalev. A doghouse denizen
for much of his 12-year career, Kovalev had been chastised for a
first-round gaffe in which he gave up on the puck after being
slashed on the hand (leading to a Boston Bruins goal in
overtime). Kovalev was the most dangerous Canadien against the
overpowering Lightning. "It's easy to see why coaches would be so
mad at him because you see how good he is when he plays well,"
Montreal defenseman Sheldon Souray said. "You want that all the
time."

Tampa Bay wants such consistency from Lecavalier. At 6'4" and 215
pounds, he has the tantalizing gifts that led former owner Art
Williams to gush that Lecavalier would be "the Michael Jordan of
hockey" after the Lightning drafted him first overall in 1998.
The closest connection is that MJ has been immortalized in the
form of a statue, while Lecavalier sometimes looks like one when
he glides into the attacking zone instead of churning his legs.
But with 16 seconds of marvelous play in the second period of a
scoreless Game 1 against Montreal, Lecavalier changed a game and
a perception.

Lecavalier, who had gone pointless in a five-game first-round
series against the New York Islanders, worked the puck along the
right boards to behind the Montreal net, battling Canadiens
Francis Bouillon and Mike Ribeiro most of the way. Eventually the
puck squirted free. Ribeiro began lugging it back up the wall,
but Lecavalier, near the end of a shift, stayed with the play,
backchecking the Canadiens center. Using his superior reach and
competitiveness, Lecavalier hooked the puck away and turned it
back into the corner to teammate Martin St. Louis, whose pass was
converted by Ruslan Fedotenko. "Set the tone for the series,"
Tampa Bay center Tim Taylor said. "Not only did it get Vinny
going, but for our team to see him working like that, it grabbed
everybody by the throat." Lecavalier would score twice in that
match and add two more goals in Game 2.

Lecavalier's fifth goal of the series will be stored in the hard
drive of hockey memory. With 16.5 seconds left in Game 3 and the
Canadiens leading 3-2, Lecavalier, planted outside the crease,
took a pass with the blade of his stick between his legs and
redirected the puck past goalie Jose Theodore. The last time
Montreal had seen a stunt that good, it had been performed by
Cirque du Soleil. The goal was a by-product of improvisational
genius--"I've never practiced that, not even outdoors on a pond,"
Lecavalier said--and a willingness to mix it up, an attribute
Tortorella had been demanding.

"Vinny played with courage," associate coach Craig Ramsay said of
Lecavalier. "He wanted to make things happen. He used his big
body and determination in this series, not just his talent.
That's what can take him to the next level."

Tortorella is reticent about ladling out public hosannas to his
players--even during their roll through the first two rounds--and
he also refused to comment on his evolving relationship with
Lecavalier. "You guys," he said to reporters before Game 4, "get
crazy with that." True. The laconic Lecavalier and the simmering
Tortorella have been the Bennifer of hockey, their ups and downs
a staple of NHL gossip ever since February 2001, when Tortorella,
then seven weeks into the job, benched his franchise player in a
game against the Buffalo Sabres.

Lecavalier also didn't talk about the relationship last week,
though his father, Yvon, conceded that "things have been better
the past few months" after a December spat in which Tortorella
benched Vincent during a game in Boston and later criticized him
for being lazy. The younger Lecavalier riposted--"An awful call,"
he said of the benching--but with none of the acrimony he
displayed in the fall of 2001 when, after a preseason holdout, he
was stripped of his captaincy and kept out of the first two
games. Lecavalier asked to be traded and was nearly shipped to
the Toronto Maple Leafs, a move scotched by Lightning president
Ron Campbell. There have been other benchings, as well as a team
meeting in a Montreal hotel in March 2002 to discuss Vinny and
Torts.

"I've told Vinny that whatever my legacy is here, for good or
ill, I will not be the G.M. who traded him," says Tampa Bay's Jay
Feaster. As for Tortorella, says Feaster, "Many players come into
my office and say, 'He hates me. He hates me.' I always tell
them, 'Don't flatter yourself. He hates me, too.' My point is,
his style is the same with everyone in the organization. If
something needs to be done with a player, [Tortorella] does it
right now and he's coming at you." For a player like Lecavalier,
who had received almost nothing but handshakes and backslaps,
getting struck with a blunt instrument like his ruthlessly
exacting coach has been a shock to his system.

"In the three years I've been with Vinny, I hope I've been able
to pass on the necessity for consistency and work ethic," says
forward Dave Andreychuk, who has played in 1,597 NHL games and
took over for Lecavalier as captain. Still, Tampa Bay officials
privately were delighted when the Canadiens knocked off Boston in
the first round because they hoped that playing against his
hometown team might inspire Lecavalier. It did. When he took to
the ice in Montreal for Game 3, he had frissons. Said Lecavalier,
"I could feel the hair on my face."

"For me, Vinny can be a Steve Yzerman-type player," says Taylor,
a former Red Wing, referring to the Detroit captain. "Scotty
Bowman was going to trade Stevie Y--he was practically gone--but
Scotty put the pieces in place for him to become what he is now,
a great two-way player and one of the best leaders in sport.
Vinny showed in the Montreal series that he can backcheck with
the best, play tough, be strong on face-offs, score. If he wants
it, he'll be one of the best. It's up to him."

The ice will shrink for the Lightning in the conference final
against the Toronto-Philadelphia Flyers winner, who will be a
more daunting challenge than the Canadiens. Will Lecavalier
shrink too? Or has he finally shown that he truly is a rare
breed?

SI.COM
For more NHL playoff coverage, including breakdowns of every
series, go to si.com/hockey/nhl/specials/playoffs/2004.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGES COLOR PHOTO: ELIOT J. SCHECHTER/EPA/SIPA (INSET) LEADER OF THE PACK Lecavalier's spirited effort has juiced his teammates. COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS O'MEARA/AP (TORTORELLA) TOUGH GUY Tortorella, who criticized and benched Lecavalier earlier this season, doesn't mince words with any of his players.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVE SANDFORD/GETTY IMAGES STICK TRICK The dramatic goal that tied Game 3 was a work of improvisation--and a move Lecavalier had never practiced.

"He used his BODY AND DETERMINATION in this series. That's what
can take him to the next level."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)