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A painful wait ends just in time for Cullimore

The defenseman's wrist heals enough for him to aid a Game 7 win in the East final.

By JOANNE KORTH
Published May 24, 2004


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TAMPA - Every day, Lightning defenseman Jassen Cullimore waited for the strength to return in his broken right wrist. For so long, he could barely grip a stick.

Saturday night, he grasped a moment.

Not only did the biggest man on the Tampa Bay roster add a little muscle to a weary defense, but he made the surprise play of the game in a 2-1 victory against the Flyers that propelled the surprise Lightning into the Stanley Cup final.

"I had to play," he said.

Cullimore, Tampa Bay's top defenseman in the regular season, returned in Game7 of the Eastern Conference final after missing 12 consecutive games. He was injured April 12 during the third game of the playoffs.

Five and a half frustrating weeks.

Though his replacement, Nolan Pratt, played well, Cullimore ached to be part of the Lightning's fairy-tale playoff run. If only the pain in his wrist would go away.

"I didn't have the power or the strength to hold on to my stick," said Cullimore, in his 10th NHL season, seventh with the Lightning. "I got the okay to test it a little bit last week, so I pushed it a little bit. It didn't react well the first two days. We took a day off and when I came back to skate the next day it just felt like the movement was a lot better. I had more range of motion in it."

Cullimore petitioned coach John Tortorella to play in Game6, the Lightning's first chance to close out the series. Surprisingly, Tortorella turned him down.

"I think when you're in the playoffs, the most important thing this time of year is your team chemistry," Tortorella said. "I have Nolan Pratt in there, who's fought like hell when Cully was hurt and done some really good things for our hockey club. So, I said no to Cully in Game6. We wanted to keep our team the way it was. We felt we were playing fairly well and I didn't want to destroy some of the chemistry."

The Lightning's heartbreaking overtime loss in Game6 - it was 1:49 from victory in regulation - and the physical pounding the Flyers inflicted on Tampa Bay's defenders inspired Tortorella to make a crafty lineup change for Game7. He inserted Cullimore, the biggest man on the roster at 6 feet 5, 246 pounds, for fourth-line center Martin Cibak.

By playing an extra defenseman, the Lightning was stronger on the blue line, Cullimore could rest longer between shifts and, as a bonus, Tortorella enjoyed flexibility with fourth-line wings Andre Roy and Chris Dingman.

Cullimore skated 19 shifts for 12:01 of ice time, including 1:11 on the penalty kill early in the first period.

"We were really concerned, obviously, with him stepping into Game7 at game speed being out for ... weeks, because that's a tough thing to do," Tortorella said. "I watch him and I see him battle through it. Those were 12 important minutes for us. So, who knows where we go with that."

Cullimore's presence also provided a needed energy boost.

"Cully comes in, first thing he does, he makes a play on our goal," forward Fredrik Modin said. "There's a guy coming right down the slot and he goes down on his knees and blocks it. It looked like he didn't miss a beat out there. It was tremendous."

But that wasn't all.

A stay-at-home defender who rarely joins the offensive rush, Cullimore did just that late in the second. When center Brad Richards headed behind the Philadelphia net, Cullimore went to the front of the net for a possible feed.

But the puck lodged between the side of the net and goaltender Robert Esche. Cullimore tried to jab it into the net, and on his second attempt the puck trickled across the crease to a waiting Modin, who scooped it in for the goal and a 2-0 lead.

"I didn't even realize it squirted out to Modin and he put it in the net," said Cullimore, who had two goals and five assists in 79 regular-season games. "Watching the replay, I was still whacking after the puck is in the net."

Playing seven defenseman worked so well, Tortorella seemed willing to consider it against Calgary in the Stanley Cup final, which begins Tuesday. Cullimore expects to play.

"I'm sure I'll be in the lineup, I hope, now that I'm playing," he said. "I'm not sure if we'll go with seven D or what we're going to do. I'm just glad I can play."

[Last modified May 24, 2004, 01:00:32]

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