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Ludzik points to this month

With 10 of 15 January games on the road, the coach says, "It's our season.''

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 3, 2001


RALEIGH, N.C. -- When some wanted to place importance on a particular game, homestand or road trip this season, Lightning coach Steve Ludzik wouldn't fall for it.

He knew what January held.

"Bottom line," Ludzik said, "it's our season."

Tampa Bay plays 10 of its 15 games this month on the road, starting with Southeast Division foe Carolina at 7 tonight at the Raleigh Entertainment and Sports Arena. With both teams positioned in the middle of the Southeast standings behind Washington and Atlanta, the game becomes more meaningful.

And that has both sides on edge.

"We have a hard time battling through a clutch-and-grab game," Carolina coach Paul Maurice said after his team's 3-2 loss to Tampa Bay Dec. 26. "We're not really built to do it and teams with more skill and a higher talent level will try more offensive plays and they need more room to skate. So we've struggled all year against teams that we feel we should be able to beat."

Though Maurice's comments were aimed at his team, Ludzik took offense.

"They seem to want to throw jabs at our organization," he said. "Whether they're meant to be or not, we take them as such. I think that's a ludicrous comment to say, "That's a team we should be beating.' I think your guys have to take that personally."

Lightning center Vinny Lecavalier said: "When you're in the NHL, I think anyone can beat any team. It's the hardest working team, the team that plays better that wins, no matter who you play. We'll play tonight like it's a division game, and division games are always important."

Even more so this month.

Success on the road, where the Lightning is 3-12-2-2 this season, not only would help close the 13-point lead Washington holds over fourth-place Tampa Bay, but it also might help the Lightning gain respect and make 10 home games in March a little more meaningful.

"We can't let the playoff picture get away from us, especially when we have all these road games this month," right wing Mike Johnson said. "We have to make sure that we get points."

Carolina was the third game in a 2-2-2 homestand against Pittsburgh, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Boston and Toronto.

Tampa Bay, 2-7-1-1 in 11 games before the homestand, showed improvement on the power play and penalty kill while getting solid goaltending from Kevin Weekes and Dan Cloutier.

"With the exception of the New Jersey game (a 5-1 loss), we played well against every team," said Weekes, who stopped 130 of 143 shots in five games. "We played teams straight up, man to man. In doing that, that just goes to show we can play with anybody."

The Lightning has scored three power-play goals in the past four games and killed 11 of 12 penalties in its last three. It still ranks 21st in the league, however, in both categories. The return of right wing Stan Drulia, who missed the past nine games with swelling in his lower back, should help.

"People don't realize how good a penalty killer Stan Drulia is," Ludzik said.

During practice Tuesday at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon, Drulia was paired with Lecavalier and right wing Mike Johnson on the first line.

Lecavalier, who has 14 goals and 18 assists this season, hasn't scored in 11 games but has four assists in his past four games.

"Obviously we've got a huge trip coming up," Ludzik said. "Everybody knows that. I made them aware of it. I just ask them to compete as hard as they've been competing.

"If we want to make the playoffs, which is all we've talked about this year, we're going to have to keep pace with Washington. I think we can do it. I know we've got some character guys on this team. Every time this team looks like it's ready to have trouble, somehow, some way we find a way to win and that's what you want."

Tonight: Lightning at Hurricanes

WHEN/WHERE: 7; Raleigh Entertainment and Sports Center, Raleigh, N.C.

TV/RADIO: Sunshine; WDAE-AM 620.

THE LOWDOWN: This is the third meeting between the teams this season. Tampa Bay won 3-2 on Dec. 26 and Carolina won 6-5 in overtime on Oct. 31. ... Jeff O'Neill has points in eight of his past 10 games ( seven goals, three assists) before Sunday's win against Chicago. ... F Sami Kapanen has 12 points in his past 13 games. ... G Arturs Irbe started his 25th consecutive game on Sunday, breaking the team record he set last season. ... Rob Brind'Amour (groin) is out and Sandis Ozolinsh (knee) is day to day. ... The Hurricanes are third in the league in penalty killing at home (89.7 percent). ... Lightning D Pavel Kubina (cut left index finger) and RW Stan Drulia (back strain) are day to day. ... Tampa Bay is 3-12-2-2 on the road this season. ... Rookie center Brad Richards has four goals in his past eight games. ... F Steve Martins was recalled from the IHL's Detroit Vipers. ... This is the first game of a four-game road trip for the Lightning after a 2-2-2 homestand. ... G Kevin Weekes has faced 34 or more shots in seven of the past eight times he played an entire game. ... The Lightning has three power-play goals in its last four games. -- Compiled by Kevin Kelly.

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