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From rout to squeaker

LIGHTNING 5, HURRICANES 4: A five-goal first proves just enough in a victory.

DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published January 16, 2004

TAMPA - Lightning right wing Martin St. Louis called the game "weird."

Center Brad Richards said it was "tough." And captain Dave Andreychuk admitted, "I hope we're not going to do that again."

Tampa Bay beat the Hurricanes 5-4 on Thursday at the St. Pete Times Forum to run its winning streak to five games. But it was the way the Lightning did it that had everybody talking ... and sweating.

Tampa Bay scored five first-period goals, three by St. Louis and one off the franchise record to take a 5-1 lead during the opening 14:55.

But a combination of head-down determination by a Carolina team fighting to stay in the playoff race and Lightning players still feeling the effects of a five-game, nine-day road trip, helped turn a rout into frayed nerves.

So many nails were being bitten among the announced 19,909, Nikolai Khabibulin's first start in five games, his 20 saves and 12th victory became part of the drama rather than its driving force.

For the record, coach John Tortorella said of the goalie, "He was okay."

Not that anyone from Tampa Bay was apologizing for a less-than-artistic victory.

"Wins are so hard to come by in this league, you take the two points and go," Tortorella said.

The Lightning's winning streak is one off the franchise record set this season, and its 49 points are five ahead of the second-place Thrashers in the Southeast with two games in hand.

St. Louis' second career hat trick gave him a team-high 18 goals and highlighted a first period in which Cory Stillman had three assists.

Richards had a goal and two assists, and Andreychuk had a goal, his 622nd, and an assist and became the 25th NHL player to reach 1,300 points.

Andreychuk's tally gave Tampa Bay a 5-1 lead. Hurricanes goaltender Kevin Weekes was benched in favor of Jamie Storr after giving up two goals on two shots - Richards at 35 seconds and St. Louis at 3:24. And the Lightning was 2-for-2 on the power play.

Okay, so Hurricanes captain Ron Francis cut the deficit to three with his power-play goal with 2:33 left. Tampa Bay was dominating.

Still, "It seemed a little too easy," Richards said.

"We had the feeling that wasn't all we would hear from them. Give them credit. They put their heads down and came right at us."

Erik Cole's power-play goal made it 5-3 with 1:22 left in the second period, and Josef Vasicek made it 5-4 9:37 into the third.

"The good news is we found some energy, had two great penalty kills in the third period and found some energy when we needed to get it done," Tortorella said. "It's ugly, but in a situation like that with as much travel as we've done, there's no question you take the two points."

"We have to come out ready to play from the start, and we didn't," Cole said. "Shame on us for not being ready."

Somewhere between the first and second periods, the Lightning lost its legs.

Carolina had a 9-2 shot advantage, and Tampa Bay wasted a 1:02 five-on-three that, if successful, would have made the score 6-2.

"Get it and the game is over," St. Louis said.

But as Tortorella said, "The second period, we just hit the wall. We couldn't get to any pucks, and we weren't making the right decisions. We just died."

"Guys came to play at the start and do what we had to do," Richards said. "But as the game goes, you start to feel it, and we got into a few bad habits."

St. Louis mentioned overpassing. Tortorella said the Lightning had trouble handling the Hurricanes' size up front.

"The first game back after the trip we had is always a tough game," Tortorella said.

"A game like this we knew it was going to be a struggle."

"I don't know why it's always like that," defenseman Pavel Kubina said. "But we won."

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