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It hurts so good

LIGHTNING 4, MAPLE LEAFS 3: Tampa Bay returns home sore, tired but staying on a winning roll.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published February 27, 2004

TAMPA - Lightning players had every right to be tired Thursday night. They had every right to be sore.

One day after finishing a grueling four-game, seven-day road trip with a win over the Thrashers, Tampa Bay was at it again, facing one of the league's most physical and persistent lineups. Not to mention one that put the whammy on it the past three years.

No better setup, center Tim Taylor said, to send a message.

A well-earned 4-3 win over the Maple Leafs before 19,909 at the St. Pete Times Forum did just that.

"We sent a message within ourselves and the coaches and fans and the rest of the league that we're not focusing on our division, but to get to the next level," Taylor said. "But to get to the next level, you have to beat teams like Toronto."

The game worked on so many levels for Tampa Bay it is difficult to keep track. Let's start big picture.

The victory continued the Lightning's remarkable run that is at 19-3-1-4 and includes one regulation loss in its past 19 games and an 8-0-1-0 mark at home.

It gave Southeast-leading Tampa Bay, No. 3 in the Eastern Conference, 80 points - two behind the No. 2 Senators with a game in hand, and three behind the No. 1 Flyers with two games in hand.

And maybe most important, it snapped Toronto's 9-0-1-0 streak against Tampa Bay dating to March 2001. Not a bad hill to get over against a team you could see in the playoffs.

"It's really a confidence builder," right wing Martin St. Louis said. Brad Richards had three points with two goals, including his 20th and one short-handed. Vinny Lecavalier's 24th goal gave Tampa Bay a 4-2 third-period lead. Pavel Kubina scored, Cory Stillman had two assists and goalie Nikolai Khabibulin made 19 saves for his 200th victory.

Then there was St. Louis, whose two assists gave him 74 points and tied Washington's Robert Lang for league lead.

"I don't want us to be surprised about playing hard," coach John Tortorella said. "If we want to do the things we want to do and keep growing, we have to play: back-to-back, road games. I think that's where this club has matured."

Not that there weren't significant blips.

After Richards' short-handed goal gave the Lightning a 2-0 lead with 7:08 left in the first period, Alexander Mogilny cut it in half 16 seconds later. After Richards' breakaway goal 1:16 into the second period made it 3-1, Mats Sundin scored 46 seconds later on the same power play, though on a bad goal, to make it 3-2.

And what would a game between these teams be without a crazy third period? Toronto has done damage to Tampa Bay in the final 20 minutes. But after Lecavalier's goal, things seemed in hand.

That is until Joe Nieuwendyk's power-play goal with 2:44 left. And when Lightning wing Dmitry Afanasenkov was penalized for using an illegal stick with 32 seconds left, palms were sweating.

But Tampa Bay killed off the six-on-four that developed when Toronto pulled goalie Mikael Tellqvist, who started because Ed Belfour's sprained back was too sore.

Defenseman Darryl Sydor blocked Sundin's shot from the front of the net with five seconds left. That was part of a terrific defensive effort, especially from the line of Taylor, Afanasenkov and Dave Andreychuk, that pinned Toronto in its end for 52 seconds ,making it unable to pull Tellqvist until the final 23.2 seconds.

Doesn't sound like a team that was sucking wind, does it?

"The best thing is to play back-to-back," Richards said. "You get back home and can get right back to the rink. There's no time to think about it, no time to rest.

"No time," he added, "to get tired."

[Last modified February 27, 2004, 01:31:31]

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