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Lightning makes it must-wince situation

JACKETS 2, LIGHTNING 0: Against bottom-dweller Columbus, Tampa Bay gets shut out again.

DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published January 3, 2004

TAMPA - For Lightning defenseman Dan Boyle, it is a strange and frustrating situation.

Coach John Tortorella called it "a dangerous time."

Tampa Bay fell 2-0 Friday to the lowly Blue Jackets at the St. Pete Times Forum in as close to a must-win game as a team can get. Worse, it came during what was one of the better games the Lightning played in recent memory.

But the team was done in by a continued inability to score and an awful blunder by goalie John Grahame that led to Rostislav Klesla's second-period winner.

"We're trying harder than ever to create something," Boyle said. "Geez, we were throwing all kinds of different things at them, and we can't get anything done."

That makes an even bigger hill out of a 20-game skid in which the Lightning went 4-12-4 while being shut out five times and scoring just 32 goals.

Talk about wasting a situation tailor-made for victory.

The Blue Jackets came into the game as, statistically anyway, the league's worst and with one victory in 15 previous road games. They also went through major upheaval Thursday when former Lightning Gerard Gallant was named interim coach after Doug MacLean stepped down.

"It's at its optimum right now," Tortorella said of the frustration level. "But it's not me I'm concerned about, it's my hockey team. It's a dangerous time when you do things you're supposed to do as a hockey club and are still not getting the results.

"What we do is the most important thing right now. We can't waver. We have to stay strong and stay mentally tough. We're going to continue to play our game and find a way."

That means playing the way it did against Columbus. Tampa Bay forechecked well, controlled the neutral zone, outshot the Blue Jackets 37-15 and led, by Tortorella's count, 22-7 in scoring chances.

It also means keeping one's head after your goalie gives the opposition a gift. That happened with 2:58 left in the second period when Grahame dropped a puck flipped high from the red line by Columbus defenseman Scott Lachance.

Grahame made the catch but said he dropped the puck as he lowered his hand. Grahame dived to his right in an attempt to poke it out of harm's way, but Trevor Letowski passed under Grahame's outstretched body.

The puck hit Todd Marchant's skate and deflected to Klesla, who scored into an empty net.

"It was a nothing play," Grahame said. "I didn't squeeze it hard enough. I relaxed for half a second. It's completely my fault."

"I haven't seen anything like that in a long time," Tortorella said. "I'm sure Grammer feels terrible about it. But what it is is what it is. I don't think our team stopped playing. We tried to crawl back in."

But Marc Denis wouldn't let them. The goalie made 37 saves to earn his third shutout of the season. It was the seventh time Tampa Bay has been shut out, five more than last season.

"But you can't just say he played a great game," Boyle said. "We've got to find a way to put the puck in the net."

Denis stoned point-blank chances from Ruslan Fedotenko and Vinny Lecavalier. He stopped five shots from Pavel Kubina and four from Fedotenko, Fredrik Modin, Ben Clymer and Tim Taylor.

The best stop was on Lecavalier with 7:36 left in the second period. Denis gloved the wrist shot from in front of the net that came after a perfect pass from Martin St. Louis, who hustled after his own rebound.

"Vinny scored the winner in Columbus," Denis said of Tampa Bay's 1-0 victory in October. "That stuck with us. It was nice to give it back to them tonight. With everything that's happened to us the last couple days, this was a great way to start something new."

Punctuated by Manny Malhotra's empty-net goal with 1:10 remaining.

"It was a must-win today," Lecavalier said. "We wanted it so bad. It just slipped away."

"It's like a broken record," Boyle said. "We have to put the puck in the net."

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