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Defensemen adjust without teammates

Injuries force the Lightning to reassess their blue-line situation.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 13, 2003

TAMPA -- They have become gaps in a smile, missing teeth as noticeable for their absence as for the job they do. It takes some getting used to.

Tampa Bay is without Jassen Cullimore, its best defensive defenseman, and Dan Boyle, its best offensive defenseman. But like someone learning to chew temporarily without a pair of choppers, the Lightning is going through a period of adjustment.

Cullimore had shoulder surgery a month ago to repair a torn left rotator cuff and likely won't be back until late March or early April. Boyle, the Lightning's leading scorer among defensemen with 30 points (seven goals and 23 assists) is expected to be out several more games since sustaining a crushed knuckle on his left forefinger Dec.29.

"When you lose Jassen and then Danny, it puts you in a jam, and we're in a jam without them," coach John Tortorella said. "But the six that are playing, I think they compete hard," referring to Cory Sarich, Nolan Pratt, Pavel Kubina, Stan Neckar, Brad Lukowich and Darren Rumble.

Still, the Lightning forwards will have to step in, Tortorella said, and help play a better team defense until the blue-liners are healthy.

Rumble has been called up for the third time this season. His stay likely will be longer than the few days combined he spent with the Lightning the other two times. Also, general manager Jay Feaster is looking to deal for a top-four defenseman.

"Partners are getting switched around a lot," left wing Dave Andreychuk said. "But I still think the people we have here are doing the job. I don't think we're really missing anything.

"Obviously, (Cullimore) is a big loss, but we knew that a while ago. And with (Boyle), you have to give him credit. He battled hard to try to stay in the lineup. We need somebody else to step up offensively, especially on the power play."

Somebody else did Saturday. Kubina and Sarich scored even-strength goals during the second period of the Lightning's rally from a three-goal deficit to tie New Jersey 3-3.

Boyle averages a team-high 23 minutes, 27 seconds of ice team. Some of that must be picked up by Kubina (averaging just more than 20 minutes), Sarich, Neckar (both between 18-19 minutes) and the rest.

"(Boyle) logged a lot of ice time," Sarich said. "I think that's the biggest part that shows up. The last couple of games, a few of us have been getting thrown out there a little more than usual."

Has it worn on him?

"I like it," Sarich said. "I think it gets you into the game a little bit more, get into the flow of it. I suppose if it continues night after night, maybe."

Another offshoot of the injuries is new defensive pairings.

"A lot of times when you get flip-flopped around, it gets to be a little bit of a blender on (defense)," Sarich said. "A big key is making sure you kind of adapt to who you're out there with.

"It's knowing whether you're playing with a right-handed shot or left-handed, where to put your passes, being organized on the draws, making sure everyone knows his assignment right off the faceoffs. A lot of that is a given when you're playing with a partner for a long time."

A lot of what happens on the ice comes down to reacting to a linemate, said Pratt, who often has been paired with Sarich.

"We started understanding where each of us was," Pratt said. "It's a bit of an adjustment (with another partner). But at the same time, I've played with (Kubina). I've played with Stan and (Lukowich). But obviously, you get more comfortable with one guy."

Another problem, so to speak, is players can't try to do too much, such as trying to carry the puck through the opposition the way Boyle does.

"I'm not an offensive guy, so you're probably not going to see me up the ice a whole lot more," said Pratt, who has no goals and six assists. "If the opportunity presents itself, sure, I'll try. But I can't get away from my game. If I'm trying that, I'm giving up on the back end, which is my area."

As the game goes on, Tortorella said, "We make adjustments with our pairings depending on what line is going well for the other team or who's going well for us.

"It's not a science. It's a situation where you've got to read the players, see how they're playing and make adjustments accordingly."

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