Times Staff Writer
Vinny Lecavalier was having a career year until he met the Devils.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - This is not what Vinny Lecavalier wants. After the best season of his career, he does not want to vanish into the offseason abyss this way.
Lecavalier is yet to find his offensive rhythm against New Jersey's trapping defense. Through four games, he does not resemble the fifth-year player who set career highs in nearly every offensive category. What a shame it would be if the last impression of Lecavalier's spectacular campaign left no impression at all.
"I haven't produced like I want to," said Lecavalier, who has no goals and one assist against the Devils. "I have confidence, it's just that they haven't gone in.
"But it's not like I haven't scored in four games and my confidence is all gone. I still feel really good out there and I'm sure good things will happen."
They did all season.
Lecavalier, 23, set career highs for goals (33), assists (45), points (78), shots (275) and plus-minus rating (even). He was tied for 20th in the league in goals, putting his name among the elite. He played in his first All-Star Game.
Though it took the Lightning two games to get its playoff bearings, Lecavalier was a force as Tampa Bay rallied to win four straight against Washington in the first round. Centering a line with wings Martin St. Louis and Vinny Prospal, Lecavalier had three goals - including the overtime winner in Game 3 - with two assists and a plus-6 rating.
Then came New Jersey.
The Devils, who trap more than Jeremiah Johnson, have the stingiest defense in the league. Checking center John Madden has made Lecavalier miserable, limiting him to a combined six shots in four games. In Wednesday's 3-1 loss, Lecavalier frequently doubled back while carrying the puck in the neutral zone, as if looking for a reset button.
"He's still a young man who hasn't gone through this before," coach John Tortorella said. "Next time around, next kick of the can, he's going to understand it better. This is the definition of experience, what he's going through. So, let me back him up a little bit here. . . . This is how you start your little road to stardom."
For now, Lecavalier would settle for a road into the Devils zone. "People look at puck-handling, but by really skating hard and using your speed you create time for yourself," assistant Craig Ramsay said. "Sometimes players, when they're struggling, want to slow things down, when really what they should do is just explode. This is an opportunity to demonstrate to people what type of player you are and what type of team we are. It isn't something to be feared."
So, with the Lightning facing elimination, Lecavalier has at least one more chance to solve New Jersey's trap. To prove a smothering defense is no match for a talented scorer.
To make an impression.
"I have to get through that," Lecavalier said. "I've been able to play against other lines and produce when I wanted to. They're a good defensive team, but we've got to get scoring."