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Lecavalier turns over new leaf

Lightning has more scoring opportunities because of center's new commitment to defense.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 7, 2002


It was not Vinny Lecavalier's most elegant pose, but it may have been his most perused since his picture appeared in GQ and Vanity Fair.

The Lightning center on Friday was sprawled on the ice at Ottawa's Corel Centre after diving to deflect a pass in the defensive zone during a Senators power play. Ottawa scored later in the sequence, but Lecavalier's effort did not go unnoticed.

"It was a great play," coach John Tortorella said. "It was too bad they were able to score. And it was a weak goal too."

What has been stronger than anyone expected has been Lecavalier's commitment to defense. We're not talking Bob Gainey or anything -- Lecavalier was minus-1 in four preseason games. But his work without the puck and the offensive chances it has produced have been notable.

Lecavalier has had trouble finishing those chances and scored just one preseason goal. But he has been energetic, enthusiastic and has embraced a part of the game to which he seemed almost allergic in the past.

"It's my specialty," Lecavalier said, laughing.

Could it be Lecavalier, 22, is maturing? Could it be he finally has taken to heart what Tortorella has been telling him for more than a year: that a complete game, one with a strong defensive component, will help him score the goals he loves?

Don't discount the effect on Lecavalier of the confidence the coach showed by giving him a regular turn on the penalty kill.

Neither should one forget that Lecavalier's ego was bruised during the past two seasons in which his production plummeted. There were whispers the No. 1 pick of the 1998 draft might be a bust.

Lecavalier said he understood the criticism.

"My production was not there," he said, "and when you don't do well, people won't say good things about you."

At the same time, he said, "You hear things, and I knew in my heart they weren't true. I'm under the microscope, and when something goes wrong, they write about it. It motivates me to do a lot better. I want to prove to people what I can do. But I also want to prove it to myself."

"He's ready to play," Tortorella said. "He's ready to show people what he's about. He is a focused athlete who has done very well the first month. I think he's going to have a great year. I really do."

Lecavalier, whose 20 goals and 17 assists last season were his lowest totals since he was a rookie, cannot afford to soak up accolades without continuing to develop.

There are still times when he inexplicably stops moving his legs when carrying the puck into the offensive zone. And there are times bad decisions cost him and the team scoring opportunities.

No disrespect to Chris Dingman, but when Lecavalier drove the slot Saturday against the Maple Leafs, there was no good reason to pass the puck to the big left wing, who may have been closer to the net but lacks Lecavalier'spizzazz as a scorer.

Lecavalier acknowledged he must be more aware of game situations.

"Every year you learn about the game and a little more about the little things you should or shouldn't do," he said. "Sometimes you still do them, but you correct yourself. Some games my vision is not there, and I have to do different things to make up for it. I know I have to keep my legs moving."

He has done that well playing without the puck.

During the first period of Saturday's game in Toronto, Lecavalier intercepted a pass in the offensive zone and passed to Vinny Prospal, whose wrist shot went just wide of the net. He checked Alexander Mogilny so well, he not only stopped the Maple Leafs sniper from getting off a shot, he turned him away from the Lightning goal.

Lecavalier's good positioning on a Toronto power play allowed him to break up a pass ... without having to dive. His first-period goal gave the Lightning a 1-0 lead en route to a 3-2 overtime victory.

"I love it," Lecavalier said of the penalty kill. "You get an opportunity to do things and work on defense and create breaks like the two-on-one (against Ottawa). I didn't score, but the chance was there."

Tortorella said he wants the media to keep its eye on the ball, or the puck, as the case may be, when dealing with Lecavalier. When an Ottawa television reporter asked about the possibility of Lecavalier, an alternate captain, regaining the C, Tortorella cut off the discussion.

"You need to leave him alone," he said. "He's a young man who has so many things coming at him, I think it's fantastic the way he's handled himself. He wants to prove something. I really hope we just let him play."


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