Kubina's two goals signal turnaround for defenseman
LIGHTNING 2, SABRES 1: Tampa Bay moves back into first place in the Southeast Division.
By BRANT JAMES
Published November 23, 2003
TAMPA - Nowadays they really are yelling his last name.
Pavel Kubina spent much of last season wallowing under a cascade of boos in arguably the worst season of his seven-year career. But 16 games into this season, the resurgent defenseman apparently has won back his fans and rekindled what the Lightning long billed as a career of great potential.
Kubina scored two goals on Saturday, his fifth and sixth of the season, doubling his output for all of 2002-03 and sparking the Lightning over the Buffalo Sabres 2-1 before a crowd of 20,112 at the St. Pete Times Forum. The Lightning improved to 11-2-2-1 and passed idle Atlanta to lead the Southeast Division by a point as it embarks on a seven-day, four-game stretch tonight at Carolina.
The victory and Kubina's latest escapade almost were undone by a ferocious final rush by the Sabres after Maxim Afinogenov scored to cut the lead to 2-1 at 2:43 of the third. But goaltender John Grahame made 25 saves, several of them stellar in the final minute of play when the Lightning could not get a line change.
"There's different flows to the game," said Grahame, who entered with a league-leading 1.07 goals-against average. "When you get a goal you get a little bit energized and you just have to weather it and go on. We won. That's the big thing."
Kubina said his detractors-turned-supporters need not feel guilty for their change of heart. He gets it.
"It's in the past," he said of the jeers. "I was not playing well in the first half last year and at the end I had some chances and couldn't score goals.
"I think they like me, so they were showing me they were not happy with me last year. If people don't like you, they won't say anything."
They said a lot after his second goal gave the Lightning a 2-0 lead at 16:28 of the second. Just 18 seconds into a two-minute power play, Kubina swooped open to the right of goaltender Mika Noronen, took a cross-ice pass from Martin St. Louis and zipped in the goal as teammate Cory Stillman tied up defenseman Rory Fitzpatrick.
"That second goal on the power play was big for us," Lightning coach John Tortorella said. "Obviously, that ends up winning the game."
St. Louis' assist gave him 16 points for the season, moving him into a tie for the team lead with Stillman. Brad Richards also was credited with his 10th assist.
The multigoal game was just the second of Kubina's career, the first since March 1, 2002, against San Jose.
"He's starting to bring some offense," Tortorella said. "And he's understanding how physical he can be."
With his increased production, Kubina has developed a flair for the dramatic. His short-handed breakaway overtime goal gave the Lightning a 3-2 win Oct. 21 at home against Atlanta.
Kubina had given the Lightning a 1-0 lead at 14:15 of the first period when he drilled a slap shot from behind the right faceoff circle under Noronon's blocker. Kubina scarcely had to move as center Alex Svitov won the faceoff cleanly, then doled a crisp pass backward.
Tampa Bay had a chance to widen the lead on the power play with 11:29 remaining as Alexei Zhitnik hauled down Fredrik Modin, but Dave Andreychuk was whistled for tripping a minute later.
The first goal appeared to be an indicator of how things were going to play out. Tampa Bay entered the game 9-0-1-0 when scoring first, Buffalo 0-8 when allowing the first goal, but the Sabres quickened after Afinogenov's score, crafting numerous rushes and outshooting the Lightning 12-5 in the third. With 2:30 left, Grahame slid to his right to pad away a hard slap shot from James Patrick.
And then everyone got to celebrate.
"It's just fun when you're winning. That's what matters," Kubina said. "If you score a couple goals and lose it's no good, but when you win, it's great hockey."