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First line can't be Lightning's only line anymore

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 26, 2003

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Every now and then, Tonto had to make a play.

Not every night, and not every episode, but there were times when Robin, too, had to hit somebody.

Sometimes, it was because the protagonist was all tied up. Sometimes, it was because the odds were just too high. But sometimes, when things were going badly, it was up to Boo Boo to grab the picnic basket.

All of which leads us to the Tampa Bay Lightning, which is currently strapped to the table with the laser beam creeping closer. The day needs saving and, frankly, the stars could use a little help.

Which reminds us.

Has anybody seen Brad Richards lately?

How about Fredrik Modin? Any word?

Has Ruslan Fedotenko written? Has he called?

Where, for goodness' sake, is the rest of the Lightning?

It has grown beyond frustration and on the other side of painful. These days, it's a riddle in a mystery wrapped in an enigma, then scrambled in with a quandary and a puzzle, with a side of dilemma. After that, you turn the whole thing into an anagram.

In other words, the supporting cast of the Lightning is missing, and it appears not to have left a note. The sidekicks are getting kicked around.

For most of the season, one of the greatest strengths of the Lightning was that it was an ensemble cast. This was a balanced team, spreading its success across two lines, leaving other teams to pick their poison.

Four players had 70 or more points. Seven players had 17 or more goals. Until late in the season, you could have had a rousing debate over which of four or five players should have been the team MVP.

Now? Now, the Lightning has turned into Martin St. Louis and the Pips. When the line of St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier and Vinny Prospal struggles, as it did on Thursday with a combined four shots, there has been no fallback.

Modin has one goal in seven playoff games. Richards doesn't have any. Fedotenko doesn't have any. Every game, the players talk about how more than one line has to show up, and still, half of the team is invisible.

How concerned is Lightning coach John Tortorella? Concerned enough to juggle his lines during Friday's practice. He had Richards wearing the yellow jersey of the fourth line, alongside Fedotenko and Nikita Alexeev. Modin was with Dave Andreychuk and Ben Clymer.

"To have a number of guys struggling a bit offensively isn't good," Tortorella said. "You need to find a different way to get it done. We're doing that, and trying to help an individual by doing some things within our team concept to help them.

"Mo's not going, Richie's not going and a number of other people. We've got to find a way. You're playing against a good defensive team. In simple terms, you have to try a little harder and something a little different. You hope that translates into ugly goals and battles."

First, though, someone has to call Missing Persons.

Where are these guys?

During the regular season, Fedotenko scored 19 goals, Richards and Modin 17 each. Richards led the league in power-play assists. Fedotenko had six winning goals, Modin four.

Richards is the guy with three straight 60-point seasons. Fedotenko is the guy who was worth trading the fourth overall pick of last year's draft. Modin still has a shot so hard it leaves a vapor trail.

Yet, after seven postseason games, all are struggling. Together, they've taken 54 shots (more than St. Louis, Lecavalier and Prospal combined), and they've scored, um, once.

Put it this way: Shooting percentage in hockey isn't comparable to, say, basketball, but feel free to translate 1-for-54 into this: It isn't good. In the regular season, these three scored on a little more than 9 percent of their shots. In the playoffs, it's less than 2 percent.

What have been the problems?

Bluntly, they haven't been good enough.

Yes, they have been checked more freely than in the regular season. Yes, they have had bad luck. Big deal. This is pro sports. You make the plays or the other guy does.

It doesn't matter the sport, really. On the higher platforms, great players, and often very good ones, find a way. They beat the coverage, they win the battle, they make the plays. These guys haven't.

Richards, for one, needs to play harder. He has struggled to fight through checks. He has gotten off shots, two dozen of them, but too many have been tepid.

Modin, on the other hand, may be trying too hard. He's clutching the stick so hard he's going to leave finger imprints on it.

Fedotenko? There is a reason his ice time has shrunk. He hasn't been consistent enough to earn more of it.

"I thought I played well in the first round, but I didn't put the puck in the net," Richards said. "No excuses. I have to put the puck in the net."

It comes down to that. This is hockey. You can't expect St. Louis to turn into Tracy McGrady and score all of his team's points. You can't expect his pairing with Lecavalier and Prospal to continue to star in every adventure.

The Lightning needs fewer players skirting around the perimeter, too far from the fire to feed it. It needs a few more players absorbing a few more bruises to make a few more players.

Maybe it will be Starsky.

If not, isn't it about time Hutch took a shot?

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