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Beast of the East

LIGHTNING 3, AVALANCHE 0: Tampa Bay ties Ottawa and Philly in points, but has more wins than any team in the conference.

DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published March 2, 2004

DENVER - You didn't need ear plugs in the Lightning locker room Monday night. And that, if you know this team, just didn't seem right.

Wall-shaking, ear-splitting, head-banging music usually punctuates victories. And considering the circumstances of their 3-0 decision over the Avalanche, you expected the players to raise the Pepsi Center roof.

The Lightning, you see, is No.1 in the East. Don't rub your eyes, you read that correctly.

Its 84 points are tied with the Senators and Flyers. But thanks to more victories, the Southeast-leading Lightning is on top. As if that wasn't enough, it is one point behind the Red Wings for the No.1 spot in the league.

So where was the celebration?

"It's in the standings that we're first but we have to stay on an even keel," center Vinny Lecavalier said. "It's very exciting, but we have to keep going to finish first. We're in a position to do that. I think we have the work ethic."

"It feels great, but we've seen it coming for a while," center Brad Richards said. "But there are still 17 games left. There's a lot of work to do."

Richards did his share with his first-period goal, his 21st that tied his career high set in his rookie season of 2000-01.

Lecavalier's third-period goal, his 25th, gave the Lightning a 2-0 lead with 5:40 remaining and redemption for shooting into Avalanche goalie David Aebischer in the first period instead of an open net.

Ruslan Fedotenko had two assists. Martin St. Louis' empty-netter, on which Lecavalier assisted, gave him 76 points, one behind Detroit's Robert Lang for the league lead. And goalie Nikolai Khabibulin got his third shutout of the season and 35th of his career.

It was Tampa Bay's franchise-best 18th road victory and it tied last season's total of 36. The team is 21-3-1-4 in its past 29 games, has won five straight and three straight on the road, where it is on a 12-3-0-3 run.

Compare that with star-laden Colorado, which is without Peter Forsberg (groin) and is 1-5-1-1 in its past eight games with three shutouts and 11 goals.

"It's a mental roller-coaster ride," defenseman Adam Foote said. "Things aren't going well. When things aren't going well, you feel like you're all alone. You just have to find a way to get out of it."

Colorado could not find its way against the Lightning, which had a 29-16 advantage in shots and, by coach John Tortorella's count, a 17-3 advantage in scoring chances. It also gave the Avalanche just one power play.

Even when the Lightning forgot to forecheck and the Avalanche applied pressure in the second period, Tampa Bay's defense clogged the center of the ice and allowed just seven shots.

Tampa Bay regrouped and outshot the Avalanche 10-4 in the third period as part of one of the most impressive defensive efforts of the season.

"I give our defense a tremendous amount of credit in the second period for holding them off because we left them alone," Tortorella said. "In the third period, I thought our forwards and our defense played as best this year away from the puck as you could."

"It was great," said Khabibulin, who made 16 saves. "I don't remember being in a game with so few scoring chances against. Every shot from the outside I could see and rebounds were cleared. I think it was a tremendous effort."

Really, though, would a little music have been so bad?

Defenseman Brad Lukowich said a quiet acknowledgement of a job well done showed the team has matured and is "day to day."

As it turned out, it could not have been any other way. The equipment staff removed the team's stereo system and CDs from the locker room before the game ended.

"Otherwise they would have been here forever," equipment manager Ray Thill said.

"I was trying to find MTV on the television," Lukowich said.

He found it wasn't necessary.

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