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A qualified victory

LIGHTNING 4, KINGS 2: Coach sees too many mental lapses when team should be making a strong push toward the playoffs.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 13, 2003


TAMPA -- There was plenty for the Lightning to feel good about Wednesday, not the least of which was another victory. But coach John Tortorella wants more.

He wants progress.

And he didn't see much.

Though it finished with a flourish, the Lightning got away with a spotty effort in a 4-2 victory against the Kings before an announced 17,138 at the St. Pete Times Forum.

Tortorella was disappointed to see players lose battles and commit turnovers in the Lightning zone -- sure signs of mental lapses. So close to its goal of reaching the playoffs, now is not the time to falter.

"We're happy with the win and we did a lot of good things," Tortorella said. "But I've seen this team play better and we can't take a dip. At this time of year, we have to continue to build. You can't have a hiccup."

The Lightning squandered a 2-0 lead, but played the final five minutes with fervor to extend its win streak against the Kings to four games. Ruslan Fedotenko scored the winner with 2:49 left.

Tampa Bay also got goals from Cory Sarich, Vinny Prospal and Vinny Lecavalier, who added an empty-netter with 16 seconds left. Ben Clymer had two assists, Prospal and Lecavalier one each.

"I think we just sometimes lose momentum," Fedotenko said of a third-period lapse that allowed Los Angeles to battle back. "The puck bounces wrong. But that shows how strong we are right now. We just regroup and come back and win the game."

It is hard to complain.

The Lightning is 9-2-3 in its past 14 games, 7-1-1 in its past nine at home. The victory maintains Tampa Bay's hold on sixth place in the East and drew it to within one point of Southeast leader Washington, with a game in hand.

Fedotenko's winner was a product of hustle as Prospal kept the puck alive along the boards, feeding Lecavalier for a one-timer near the right circle. The shot deflected off a defender's stick to Fedotenko, who beat Jamie Storr for his 15th goal of the season and team-high sixth winner.

"Any goal is exciting, but especially a game-winner," said Fedotenko, who has 14 winners among 49 career goals. Goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin made 26 saves to stretch his unbeaten streak to a career-long and franchise-record 10 games, during which he 8-0-2 with a 1.38 goals-against average and .948 save percentage. While a playoff berth seems likely with 12 games left, the Lightning is not beyond learning valuable lessons.

The Kings said goodbye to two of their top three scorers -- defenseman Mathieu Schneider (43 points) and center Bryan Smolinski (38 points) -- in the hours before Tuesday's trade deadline. It was a clear message that management has given up on the season.

That, Tortorella knew, made Los Angeles dangerous.

"We can't think any team is not going to battle us hard," he said. "You guys think I'm absolutely nuts talking about 'every day, just worry about today.' That's all this team is able to handle -- each day.

"If we start looking ahead or by people, we are done. It creeps up on you and it can't happen. On the positive side, I think our room understands that."

After a scoreless first period, the Lightning jumped on Los Angeles for two goals in the second: Sarich's fourth at 2:30 and Prospal's 18th at 10:07.

But the Kings made it 2-1 on Alexander Frolov's goal at 13:49, snapping a scoreless streak against the Lightning of 154:22 dating to Dec. 16, 2000. Tampa Bay shut out the Kings in two meetings last season.

Los Angeles applied heavy pressure to start the third, and Ian Laperriere tied it at 9:56.

"We started just kind of waiting, and they kept coming and coming and coming," Lightning defenseman Dan Boyle said. "We paid the price, giving up two goals. We won, that's the key. But we just have to learn."

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