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In the end, a point worth the wait

LIGHTNING 1, PANTHERS 1: Martin St. Louis' goal in the final minute salvages a tie.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 30, 2003

TAMPA -- A year or two ago, a Lightning game like Saturday night's against the Panthers would have been different in the third period. Panic would have been one of the operative words.

"I think our resiliency has improved this year. It's not panic when we're down by a goal and things aren't going our way," coach John Tortorella said after Martin St. Louis' goal on a deflection with 36.1 seconds remaining in regulation beat Roberto Luongo and lifted the Lightning into a 1-1 tie before 19,420 at the St. Pete Times Forum.

Tampa Bay stayed two points ahead of Washington in the chase for first place in the Southeast Division.

"Our team knew we were playing well," Tortorella said. "We outchanced them 21-11. We knew what we were doing. The biggest improvement we've made is we don't break away from the team concept. We stay with it, try to grind it out, play as a team, not as individuals."

With Lightning goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin on the bench for a sixth skater, Vinny Lecavalier started the tying play.

"We got the puck (on the faceoff) in the Panthers' end and threw it back to Vinny behind the net," St. Louis said. "He threw it up high to the (left) point and we were able to set up a good shot, not just a desperate shot and Brad (Richards) shot it through traffic and I was able to put a stick on it and (have it) change directions.

"There are games you think you don't feel you should have won and you won and games that sometimes you should have won and didn't. Would we have been happier with a win? Obviously, but we got a lot of opportunities and Luongo was big and that's going to happen. We can't feel too sorry for ourselves," St. Louis said.

Panthers coach Mike Keenan said Florida won the faceoff that led to the tying goal "but we didn't clear the puck. We also had an empty net (to shoot at) but didn't capitalize. The end of the game is when the intensity picks up."

Luongo stopped 39 shots, six in overtime, as the Lightning spent most of the extra period in the Panthers end.

"I think he played a terrific game," Khabibulin said. "To be honest, when it got down to the last minute I didn't think we were going to get any goals tonight. We got lucky enough to squeeze one by him."

Khabibulin had to make four of his 29 saves in overtime, one on a two-on-one rush. Good, he said, but not that important.

"We already had a point by then," he said. "If they scored, we'd still have the point."

The point, coupled with the one Washington earned in a 4-3 overtime loss to Toronto, kept the Lightning two ahead of the Capitals with the magic number reduced to five for Tampa Bay to clinch the division title and third seed in the East for the playoffs. Any combination of five points gained by the Lightning and not scored by the Caps will cement first place. Tampa Bay has an extra game to play.

The Lightning extended its unbeaten streak to 11 (7-0-4) and Khabibulin's unbeaten streak is 15 (11-0-4). But he'll have to wait at least one more game to break the team record of 29 victories in a season he shares with Daren Puppa, who set it in 1995-96, the only other time Tampa Bay reached the playoffs.

After two scoreless periods, Olli Jokinen scored on a power play 1:07 into the third. Tim Taylor was penalized for cross-checking Denis Shvidki into the boards with 11 seconds to go in the second.

The penalty carried over into the third and Jokinen made Tampa Bay pay, taking Viktor Kozlov's cross-ice pass at the goalmouth and slapping it into the unguarded right side of the net.

The Lightning took eight penalties including two four-minute double minors by Andre Roy and Alexander Svitov.

"Stupid penalties," Tortorella said. "That simply can't happen during the playoffs."

A comeback like this -- and Tampa Bay has had several this season -- "is a matter of character," St. Louis said. "It's not the first time we've done it and I'm sure we're going to keep doing it."

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