Tortorella, Lecavalier feud will play itself out

There is a high-stakes game taking place in Tampa Bay, and right now coach John Tortorella is holding all the cards.

The latest flare up occurred last week when Tortorella and star Vincent Lecavalier were publicly at odds over Lecavalier's benching against the Bruins because of his shoddy defensive play.

Again GM Jay Feaster came out in support of his coach. Unlike other organizations, the Lightning's ownership, management and staff appear staunch in their support of Tortorella in any dealings he has with star players.

"If you look at our organization, it's pretty clear that it doesn't matter what your name is, we are going to do what it right for the team," said one member of the club's management team. "I think he (Tortorella) has made it pretty clear that everybody gets treated the same.

"With us, that's the way it has to be. Frankly, I don't think this is going to be the big deal that everybody thinks. It's happened before, and we've been fine. In fact, we've been better because of it."

It happened in last spring's playoffs when Tortorella had the nerve to replace goalie Nikolai Khabibulin with John Grahame in Game 5 of the second round against New Jersey, a loss which ended the Bolt's run. The switch immediately started rumors that either Khabibulin would be moved or that Tortorella would be gone early this season.

Well, it's after Christmas. Khabibulin is still the No. 1 goalie, and the boss behind the bench is still Tortorella

One of the reasons Tortorella's style continues to work this season is the presence of assistant coach Craig Ramsay. The duo forms the classic good cop-bad cop scenario, an effective combination which is why the Bolts were adamant that the Florida Panthers were not going to get their hands on Ramsay when they wanted to hire him earlier this season to replace Mike Keenan.

Just over a week before the latest confrontation between Tortorella and Lecavalier, the Tampa coaching and management staffs met and agreed that players such as Lecavalier and Brad Richards were going to have to show even more leadership if the team was to push past Atlanta for the division crown and make a serious playoff run. Those expectations were made clear to Lecavalier, so last week's words from Tortorella should not have come as a shock.

Lecavalier is fortunate in that the Lightning do not trap with the persistence of other teams. They need to fill their building, and a neutral zone trap would kill the game for the fans. However, as the season progresses, the Bolts will have to be able to button down games with sound defensive play, and that is why Lecavalier drew the ire of the coach.

Of course, because the Bolts are clearly in need of a defenseman, the trade rumors will gain momentum. However, it is not likely they will want to swap Lecavalier for anyone. Their current plan is to hold on as long as possible, then rent a veteran defenseman near the trade deadline. But if they fall too far off the unexpected pace of the Thrashers and others, they could alter that plan quickly.

Focus on Peca
The loss of Alexei Yashin for 10 to 12 weeks because of a lacerated arm demanded that some other Islanders take the lead. First up has been forward Mark Parrish, who scored game winners in consecutive games, as the Isles came out of the holiday break with big wins over the New Jersey Devils and Toronto Maple Leafs.

However, Parrish is a streaky scorer, so the Isles will especially Michael Peca to pick up his game. With Yashin out, a verdict on whether Peca's career can ever return to the
consistent level of excellence he displayed before a severe knee injury will be returned.

Battle in the Pacific
The Pacific Division is turning into one of the NHL's most intriguing races with two California teams dreamin' of the title. After a poor start, the Sharks have come out of nowhere and tied the Kings for the lead, gaining three of four points against them during a recent home-and-home sequence.

However, dig a little deeper and you can see a hidden victory for the Kings, who spent the past couple of weeks making up for the loss of goalie Roman Cechmanek (hip injury). After getting blown out in San Jose, 5-0, they came back three times on Saturday night to earn a 4-4 tie with the Sharks. Once again, coach Andy Murray is turning in one of the best coaching jobs in the NHL by getting the most out of a team beset with injuries.

Al Morganti covers the NHL for ESPN. Click here to send Al a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.