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Lightning: 50-50-50-50 proposition

If Tampa Bay loses 13 or more of its remaining 25 games, it will be the first team in NHL history with four straight 50-loss seasons.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 15, 2001


TAMPA -- We knew things were bad in Lightning land, but the team is close to achieving a level of futility unmatched in NHL history.

If Tampa Bay loses 50 games -- a very real possibility -- it will be the first team to do so in four consecutive seasons.

Let that sink in. The worst four-year stretch in league history -- at least since 1949-50, when teams began playing at least 70 games -- is at the Lightning's fingertips.

"That's not a pleasant thing," defenseman Jassen Cullimore said. "It's something, as an athlete, nobody wants to do. Hopefully, 50 losses is something we won't see."

It is staring the Lightning in the face. And considering Tampa Bay's rutted path of 18 losses in 21 games heading into tonight's matchup with the Bruins, it is just about filling the screen.

The Lightning lost 55, 54 and 54 games the past three seasons. With 37 losses this season, it is on pace to lose 53.

Even if you cut the team a break and discount the three overtime losses that don't show up in the loss column, it is on pace to lose 49.

And that is way too close for comfort.

"Hopefully," forward Martin St. Louis said, "we won't lose 50."

To avoid it, the Lightning must not lose more than 12 of its final 25 games. If it fails, Tampa Bay will overtake the Penguins, the only other team to lose at least 50 in three consecutive seasons: 53 in 1982-83, 58 in 1983-84 and 51 in 1984-85.

The Senators might have hit the big 5-0 in four consecutive seasons were it not for the players' strike of 1994-95.

Ottawa lost 70 games in 1992-93, 61 in 1993-94 and 59 in 1995-96. It lost 34 in 1994-95, but played just 48 games. Extrapolated for an 82-game season, the losses jump to 59.

The good news for the Lightning is the Senators made a huge jump in 1996-97, going 31-36-15. And after the Penguins' third 50-loss season, they went 34-38-8 in 1985-86.

The bad news: At the moment, there are no signs the Lightning will make such a jump, and general manager Rick Dudley knows it.

"I don't care about 50," he said. "All I want to know is we're going in the right direction, and right now we're not. I want to see a swing take place. We want to see the signs of what happened in Ottawa. We have to see it before the season ends."

If not, players will lose their jobs over the summer, though that will likely happen whether the team turns things around or not. Dudley said building with youth is still his preferred path.

"I don't blame the fans for being disappointed," he said. "But we are going to maintain patience because that is the way it has to be done. The whole point here is, do you want to be a team that goes 30-40 and feels good about itself short-term, or do you want to be an elite team?"

"It requires a certain amount of patience. It's tough. It's really tough."

"It's a mess," coach John Tortorella said. "Let's call a spade a spade. It's a mess right now, but this is where you find what character is about. What guys will fight to help us get through this?

"We've got 25 games left in the season to improve and start setting priorities. This is a most important time for this team."

To the players' credit, the locker room still seems strong, and, in public, anyway, no fingers are being pointed.

Cullimore, who is in his fourth Lightning season and probably has seen more losses than anyone on the team, said, "The attitude in the dressing room is better than it has been. It hasn't been as difficult as the past couple of years. With this team, it's the kind of thing that can turn around any day."

Said St. Louis: "Sometimes losing just snowballs. You just don't get the bounces. We need the bounces to crack us out of this losing streak. We need 20 guys to come together to give 100 percent."

And avoid making NHL history.

* * *

WHEN/WHERE: 7:30; Ice Palace, Tampa.

TV/RADIO: Sunshine; WDAE-AM 620.

THE LOWDOWN: The Lightning sent RW Sheldon Keefe to the IHL's Detroit Vipers. ... LW Todd Warriner has a broken little toe on his left foot, but is expected to play. ... The Bruins have not played since their 6-2 whipping of the Lightning on Saturday at Boston. ... This is the third of four meetings. They tied 1-1 Dec. 30 at the Ice Palace. ... With G Byron Dafoe out with a sore right hamstring, expect Peter Skudra to start for Boston. ... The Lightning will evaluate G Kevin Weekes' groin strain before deciding whether he or Dieter Kochan will start. ... Boston has converted five of its past 53 power-play chances, but was 3-for-8 Saturday. ... Tampa Bay has allowed 13 goals in its past 49 short-handed situations, a dreadful 73.5 percent efficiency. ... The Bruins are 6-2 in their past eight games. ... The Lightning has lost four in a row and 18 of 21. ... The Bruins are 10-13-2-2 on the road. Tampa Bay is 11-12-3-0 at home. ... Lightning C Brad Richards has two goals and eight assists in his past seven games and is tied for longest rookie scoring streak this season. ... Boston leads the series 19-7-6 and is 7-6-3 in Tampa.

-- Compiled by Damian Cristodero.

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