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Tampa Bay finds itself just average

FLYERS 3, LIGHTNING 2: The Lightning, with its seventh loss in nine games, drops to .500 for the first time this season.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 19, 2003

PHILADELPHIA -- Nikolai Khabibulin kept his voice steady, his eyes straight ahead. It is one of the Lightning goaltender's greatest attributes: being able to level his emotions.

Still, after Saturday's 3-2 loss to the Flyers at the First Union Center that included as its most untimely mistake a generous rebound by Khabibulin that turned into the winning goal, it was easy to sense his frustration.

The goalie has lost six of his past eight decisions. The Lightning has lost three straight, seven of nine, including one in overtime, and for the first time this season has fallen to .500 (18-18-6-4).

A point against the red-hot Flyers would have been a soothing salve. Instead it turned into a wicked turn of the knife.

"I have no words for that," Khabibulin said.

The good news for Khabibulin was that he finished.

The goaltender was pulled from his previous two starts and four of his past seven with an abysmal .878 save percentage.

He was especially solid during a first period in which Philadelphia had a 13-3 advantage in shots, but the score was tied 1-1.

The problem came in the third period on a crisp shot from Donald Brashear.

Khabibulin blocked the puck with his chest but the rebound went into the slot. Michal Handzus pounced and beat Khabibulin between his legs 12:37 in to break a 2-2 tie.

Khabibulin admitted his misplay.

"If I had put it in the corner, there would be nothing there," he said. "Somehow I played it off my chest instead of the glove."

The result was the Lightning's fifth straight road loss and the continuation of a 14-game streak in which it is 3-8-2-1.

"All we can do is continue to try to stop the bleeding and try to work hard and work on the details of the game and hopefully get some breaks," coach John Tortorella said.

Some of those details seem to be finally, slowly, starting to reemerge.

Though it started slowly, the Lightning battled. And though Tampa Bay had a season-low 14 shots, it limited the Flyers to 11 in the final two periods.

Vinny Prospal scored his ninth goal, breaking a nine-game drought and giving the Lightning the opening goal for only the fourth time in 14 games.

Vinny Lecavalier had an even plus-minus after going minus-10 in his previous seven. And he made his 19th goal and 100th of his career a biggie, beating goalie Roman Cechmanek to tie the score at 2 at 12:29 of the second.

"You knew that after Tampa Bay was outplayed in the first period that they were going to come with a push, and they did," Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said. "They competed really hard in their own zone."

Penalty killing continues to be a problem for the Lightning.

The team entered the game with the league's third-worst road penalty kill at 79.4 percent. The Flyers scored twice with the man advantage, including Kim Johnsson's goal during a five-on-three at 5:58 of the second that gave the Flyers a 2-1 lead.

The calls were borderline. Prospal was called for hooking at 4:56 by referee Bill McCreary after McCreary and referee Paul Stewart missed Prospal getting drilled from behind into the boards by Pavel Brendl.

Dave Andreychuk was called 40 seconds later by Stewart for closing his hand on the puck as he tried, while lying on the ice, to shovel it to defenseman Brad Lukowich.

"We don't want to make excuses because when you make excuses all you're doing is defending the way you play," center Tim Taylor said. "I don't want to defend the way we played because we played well.

"We just didn't get the chances that they had."

When Khabibulin had a chance to save a point, he didn't.

"I've just got to keep working," he said. "I know it's frustrating for everybody. We've got to come to games ready to play and do the little things and try to turn it around.

"I don't see any other way."

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