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Lightning

Let youngsters have points; Andreychuk makes plays

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 17, 2003


WASHINGTON -- It has changed. Just like that.

One goal. One play. One dramatic turnaround.

Tampa Bay is in control of its fortunes again and it took only a few seconds. Okay, Dave Andreychuk had the puck. So maybe it took a bit longer.

They are laughing again in the Lightning locker room. They are poking fun at their foibles and ignoring their nerves.

And, to the surprise of no one, Andreychuk's fingerprints have been found in all the right places.

He doesn't play as many minutes as he used to. He doesn't skate as fast as he once did. (And heaven knows he wasn't working with much to begin with.)

At 39, what Andreychuk does is survive. He teaches without trying and he leads without looking back. He stands in front of a net and refuses to budge. He stands in front of a team and does not allow it to quit.

And, every so often, he creates another memory. For himself, for his teammates, for us all.

This is what it was like watching Andreychuk in Game4 Wednesday night. To see him pluck a puck from mid-air as if he were grabbing fate itself.

"In the playoffs," coach John Tortorella said, "those little plays, at key times, change things."

Little? Maybe in origin. Its impact was huge. Playing consecutive nights, the Lightning appeared listless. Passes were errant, checks were weak. A brilliant one-on-one play by Martin St. Louis gave Tampa Bay a lead, but it was lost less than four minutes later.

Now, the Capitals had a power play.

And the Lightning was scrambling.

There are greater talents on the roster. Younger, quicker, better skilled players. Yet no one is surprised Andreychuk made the play of the series.

This is his time. This is his moment.

It is common to see Andreychuk playing special teams, but it was unusual to find him at mid-ice. Washington's Kip Miller was accepting a pass when Andreychuk showed up from nowhere to swat the puck.

Miller stumbled backward as the puck went in the air. Andreychuk steadied it with his right hand and headed to the goal.

"I surprised them a little bit," Andreychuk said. "They expect a penalty killer to go to the net. I don't think he expected me over there."

Expect the story to change as it grows in legend. Andreychuk says he saw St. Louis to his left from the moment he began skating. The truth is St. Louis was far behind the play but quickly caught up to Andreychuk.

With both reaching the net simultaneously, goaltender Olaf Kolzig had to make a choice. He moved to one side and Andreychuk passed to St. Louis on the other. The puck hit the back of the net and, though the game was 23 minutes from completion, the Lightning essentially had tied the series.

Each team has won twice and, yet, Tampa Bay seems to be ahead. The Lightning has momentum. It has faith.

Maybe, best of all, it has the Capitals doubting themselves.

"That's David. He's a warrior," Tortorella said. "Comes out, back to back nights, what's he play 19 minutes? It was a huge goal."

This is where Tortorella pauses. And smiles.

"The big guy came flying down that right side."

So Andreychuk is not going to scare anyone in a race. And it took all he had to arrive at the net at the same time as St. Louis.

The bottom line is he made the play. Just as expected.

"That's what the younger players on this club learn from. Plays like that," Tortorella said. "He's been a warrior all year long."

The best part is that no one even expected to see Andreychuk on the ice. Minutes earlier, he stuck his body in front of a Washington shot and it richocheted off his left ankle.

Andreychuk came off the ice and immediately headed to the trainer's room. As he came through the locker room door, he decided the ankle didn't hurt that badly, after all. He turned, walked back to the bench, skated onto the ice and, quite possibly, changed the fortune of a series.

"He's unreal," general manager Jay Feaster said. "He's just unreal."

The kids, it should be said, have gotten most of the points. Between them, Vinny Lecavalier and St. Louis have six goals and three assists.

Maybe, watching Andreychuk, they have grown older.

Or maybe, watching them, Andreychuk has grown younger.

Early Tuesday, with the Lightning facing the real possibility of a sweep, players gathered for the morning skate before Game3.

The MCI Center was quiet as they began lining up for what could have been one of their final sessions of the season. Suddenly, Andreychuk began to shout.

Was it anger? Frustration?

Nah.

Andreychuk had been flipping a puck in the air, trying to knock a small, round window out of the plexiglass near the team's bench. His mission completed, he hollered and skated away.

In his wake, he left a couple of other players trying to repeat the trick.

"Our biggest leader, our captain?" Tortorella said. "He's a bigger kid than any of them."

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