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Owners, it's time to ante up

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2003

TAMPA -- The stretch run is here. Show us something.

The ground is treacherous. The air is thin. The games matter. Show us they matter to you, too.

These are the moments you talked about, those precious, desperate nights when a season rises and falls like the beat of a heart. Show us the measure of your effort, your desire, your commitment.

This is true for those who play for the Lightning.

It also is true for those who pay for the Lightning.

When the playoffs are within reach, it is time for a team to deliver on its promise. An ownership, too. And so it is with the Lightning, a team that finally has learned to stand again.

Twenty-two games to go, and the drive toward the postseason has turned into a traffic jam. The Lightning -- the Lightning! -- is approaching the checkout aisle, bumping and shoving against the Islanders, the Canadiens, the Bruins. Every day, the canvas changes.

It is about here that it seems prudent to point this out.

Frankly, the Lightning could use a little help.

A push, maybe. A nudge. A lifeline. A tow. A life preserver. A little gas, a little guidance. Another hand, another oar.

Another player, okay?

This is what the team ownership has said all along, right? That if the Lightning found itself in the hunt, and in need of reinforcements, it wouldn't hesitate to break out the wallet.

Time after time, we have heard it. It's like listening to the chorus from Louie Louie. Every few seconds, you're going to hear, "Me gotta go now." With the Lightning, every few seconds you're going to hear the "if we find ourselves in the hunt" speech.

Guess what, guys?

The Lightning is in the hunt.

Over the next few weeks, we will learn a lot about the ownership of the Lightning and, therefore, the future. If Bill Davidson indeed ponies up for a prime defensive player, then it's a healthy sign. If a deal never materializes, however, it's going to raise questions whether things ever will get better, whether the cost of playoffs is too rich for ownership's consideration.

We are watching. The media. The fans. And, yes, the players.

Don't fool yourselves. The players are waiting and watching, too. A new player, arriving at the most crucial of times, brings with him a renewed energy. He makes a team feel stronger, more confident. He carries a message from ownership that says its resolve, its hunger, matches the team's. That it, too, will pay the price.

Around here, it's easy to be skeptical. The Lightning has protected nickels as fiercely as pucks in recent seasons. This team has won an amazing amount of games considering its $28-million payroll (if it increased that total by half, it would meet the league average).

General manager Jay Feaster will tell you that, so far, the quest for another defenseman has not been a question of ownership's willingness to spend. It's that he has not found the right deal. Simple as that.

"We'd like to make a deal," Feaster said. "Even before Jassen Cullimore was injured, I thought we needed reinforcements for the blue line. But you can't just go out to Stein Mart or Wal-Mart or Macy's or Saks and pick one up. It takes two to deal.

"There are probably 10-12 other teams looking for the same thing we are. We're not the only one in the market looking."

That's true. It's also true that the right fit is important. The Lightning decided it wasn't interested in Boris Mironov, for example, because it questioned the impact he would have on the locker room.

That said, history tells us this. Between now and the March 11 trading deadline, someone is going to shake loose. There will be someone who can help the competition without screwing up the chemistry.

Then we all look toward ownership, don't we?

Feaster says he has no doubts. In recent months, after all, Davidson has taken additional interest in the Lightning, going as far as discuss individual players.

"People question it because nothing has happened yet," Feaster said. "But I'm convinced that if I go to Bill Davidson and lay out the reasons we should do this, I'm totally confident he'll do it."

For instance, Feaster points to the trade for backup goaltender John Grahame. He says no one raised the issue of the additional salary the team was taking on.

This time, the Lightning needs a top level defenseman. It needs someone who can rattle a few bones, make a few people nervous, protect the puck. It needs someone who can lift a team and help it get over the hump.

Maybe he arrives soon. In another 10 days, maybe two weeks, another team or two will drop out of the race, and it will start selling off parts. It happens every year.

When it happens, you would like to believe the Lightning will jump all over him. When you consider the strides this team has taken, wouldn't the worst thing be to miss the playoffs because ownership stayed with a pat hand?

It's the stretch run. It's time to dig a little deeper and come up with a little more. It's time to make the crucial play at the crucial time.

That's true of a team.

An ownership, too.

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