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Convincing, confident victory

LIGHTNING 2, SENATORS 1: Nikolai Khabibulin's 30 saves help end a 10-game losing streak in Ottawa to move into a tie for first in the Southeast.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2003

OTTAWA -- Even for a player with the track record and reputation of Nikolai Khabibulin, a pat on the back can go a long way.

The Lightning goaltender got the word from coach John Tortorella that he is "our guy" and will get the bulk of the starts for the rest of the season.

A 2-1 victory against the Senators on Saturday at the Corel Centre, with Khabibulin's 30 saves as the centerpiece, proved the vote of confidence was not misplaced.

"When a coach shows that confidence in you, it's always great for any player, including the goalie," said Khabibulin, who is 5-0-1 with a .957 save percentage in his past six starts after a 0-6-3 streak.

"Nik was fantastic," Tortorella said. "That's what we need. Nik is coming on very strong right now."

Is it any wonder the Lightning is doing the same?

With 71 points, two more than last season, Tampa Bay is tied with the Capitals for first in the Southeast with a game in hand. It is 6-1-2 in its past nine and has gained 25 points in its past 19.

If that isn't enough of a statement, how about this: The Lightning split the season series 2-2 with the league's No. 1 team, which, if circumstances fall the right way, it could meet in the first round of the playoffs. And it did it in a city in which it had lost 10 in a row while being outscored 53-16.

The promising victory kicks off a tough three-game road trip that still must go through Long Island and Detroit.

"It shows we're in playoff contention," Khabibulin said. "We're not just trying to hang in there. We're trying to get as high as possible and win the division."

Khabibulin again benefited from solid play from his defense, which limited second chances. And Tampa Bay got second-period goals from Martin St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier, both off assists from Vinny Prospal, to overcome a 1-0 deficit.

St. Louis' power-play score, his 29th goal and second in 13 games since the All-Star break, tied it after Prospal stole the puck along the boards in the offensive zone. Lecavalier's winner with 54.6 seconds left was dazzling.

The center stick-handled off the right-wing boards toward the slot, where he embarrassed Magnus Arvedson by putting the puck through his legs and turning him around. Lecavalier capped the effort by beating goalie Patrick Lalime along the ice.

"It was just a terrific goal, wasn't it?" Tortorella said. "He just undressed Arvedson."

"It was a reaction," said Lecavalier, who has 24 goals, including three and eight assists in his past nine games. "I was going to shoot it right away. But I made a move, and it worked. I wouldn't try that all the time."

It was the Senators' third loss in their past five at home, a trend center Mike Fisher called disturbing. "They played hard, and we didn't have the effort we needed," he said. "It's kind of hard to explain. You want to compete every night, and some parts of the game we didn't. We had some good chances and did some good things."

But the Senators were frustrated by Khabibulin, who should get a thank-you note from Nolan Pratt. The Lightning defenseman gave the puck to Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson in the slot about 4 feet from the Tampa Bay net with 6:11 left in the first period.

Alfredsson measured the goalie and shot for the top corner, but Khabibulin made a glove save.

"It happened very quick," Khabibulin said. "I didn't have time to think of anything. I just tried to make him commit. I didn't commit first."

"He's playing like we know he can play," St. Louis said. "There's nothing better than having that happen right now. We all feed off that. It's contagious."

And deserves a nice pat on the back.

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