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Lightning to begin critical stretch

Tampa needs to earn some points during the next 11 games to get into the playoff race.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2002


TAMPA -- The Lightning has talked since the first day of training camp about making a run at the playoffs. The goal was to play meaningful games in February and March.

The deadline is three weeks away.

Tonight's game against Ottawa begins an 11-game stretch in which Tampa Bay plays six against Eastern Conference teams in position to make the playoffs. With 37 points, the Lightning trails eighth-place New Jersey by eight. "Our players know where they are. They look at the standings," coach John Tortorella said. "They know this is a very important time of the year. I'm anxious to see if we can get over the hump of, "I'm trying hard, but it just isn't happening.' It's the next step we have to make."

Tampa Bay has lost 14 one-goal games this season. Tortorella shudders to think how many points the team could have if its most talented scorers -- Vinny Lecavalier, Fredrik Modin and Brad Richards -- provided the big goals the team needs.

"You're looking at maybe 43 or 44 points," he said. "Where would that put us? It's scary."

It would put the Lightning in the thick of the playoff race just past the midway point of the season.

Instead, it continues to struggle offensively -- its 82 goals are tied with Columbus for the fewest in the league -- and has lost six of its past seven.

"I don't think there's too much more you can say about it," Tortorella said. "It's not lack of effort. But I'd like to see a little bit of mental toughness kick in and say, "This isn't good enough just getting quality chances. I need to score a big goal at a big time.'

"I don't think it should be me challenging them anymore. It has to come from within them."

Lecavalier agrees.

A training camp holdout, he signed a four-year, $10.2-million contract based largely on his potential to become one of the league's top scorers. He has seven goals in 40 games, none in the past eight.

"It's up to us," Lecavalier said. "We're the ones holding the sticks on the ice. We're the ones who control whether we score or not. It's in our hands, and we have to bear down. I had a 2-on-1 in the last game and missed the net. That's unacceptable."

Modin has 12 goals, tied with Martin St. Louis for the team lead, but none in the past six games. Richards has nine goals, one in the past 11 games.

Though Modin rarely practices because of a variety of injuries, Richards spent extra time Friday working on his shooting and trying different moves around the net.

"I don't think you can keep doing the same thing because, obviously, it's not working," Richards said. "We're trying to get more shots on net, trying to move people in front of the net. We've got to find ways to get in prime scoring areas."

Tampa Bay had 17 scoring chances against Dallas on Tuesday but lost 2-1. The Stars got goals from Joe Nieuwendyk and Mike Modano, big-name players, in the third period. Tortorella wants his most talented players to make similar plays.

Instead, St. Louis -- the smallest player at 5 feet 9 with the smallest salary at $250,000 -- leads the team with 29 points (12 goals, 17 assists). Having overcome his size, St. Louis can battle through adversity.

"He shouldn't be our leading scorer, and I've said that to Marty," Tortorella said. "That's no knock on him. It's a feather in his cap that he is, but he shouldn't be."

The Lightning is chasing New Jersey for the eighth Eastern Conference playoff spot. It plays the Devils twice in the next six games to close out the season series. In two meetings, Tampa Bay won 2-0 at home and tied 1-1 on the road.

Two victories would help close the gap.

"Our guys who have been here a number of years haven't been asked to step out and do something special," Tortorella said. "These are big games here. Let's really get in the hunt in February and March. This is a good test, and it's a great opportunity because we haven't been here before.

"Let's go with it."

-- Times Staff writer Steve Lee contributed to this report.

TONIGHT: LIGHTNING VS. SENATORS

WHEN/WHERE: 7:30; Ice Palace, Tampa.

RADIO: WDAE-AM 620.

THE LOWDOWN: Tampa Bay will try to end a four-game home losing streak and snap out of its scoring slump (five goals in its past five games). It won't be easy considering Ottawa is the Eastern Conference's top-scoring team with 143 goals before Friday's action. An MRI on C Tim Taylor's groin was negative, and he skated Friday. The Senators beat Florida 4-2 on Friday. The Lightning is 7-46-3-2 in January since 1997-98. It is 1-3 this month. RW Daniel Alfredsson leads the Senators with 44 points (22 goals, 22 assists). Tampa Bay's Nikolai Khabibulin leads the league with a .935 save percentage despite facing 1,123 shots, fifth-most. He is third in goals-against average (2.02) and tied for second in shutouts (six). Expect backup Jani Hurme (2.41 GAA) in goal for the Senators. This is the second of four meetings this season. Ottawa won 5-2 at home on Dec. 8.

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