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Top rookies to stage a summit

Brad Richards gets a chance to take shots at San Jose goalie Evgeni Nabokov, a rival in Calder Trophy consideration.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 6, 2001


TAMPA -- Maybe it would have been easier for Lightning center Brad Richards had he thought of the Calder Trophy, symbolic of NHL rookie of the year, as does Evgeni Nabokov.

The Sharks goaltender, considered the front-runner for the award, said it's just not that big a deal.

"Maybe I just don't understand what this means," the 25-year-old Russian said Monday. "You guys (reporters) never let me forget about it because you're always asking, but it's not that important to me right now at this point."

Compare that with Richards, who said constant questions about the award made it an important goal -- so important, it took him out of his game.

"You go into every city and they always talk about rookie of the year," the 20-year-old said. "It got in my head, and they were just things I shouldn't have been thinking about. I should be thinking about trying to get this team turned around."

Instead, Richards said, he tried to make plays he normally would not attempt, tried to score when passing was a better option.

When the Lightning faced the Rangers on ESPN2 on Feb. 17, Richards admitted he saw a chance to impress a national audience.

After a while, he was spending less and less time around the puck, deadly for a playmaker.

"I wasn't having fun," Richards said. "I wasn't enjoying myself."

Richards is still the NHL's highest-scoring rookie, with 47 points on 16 goals and 31 assists. He also leads in assists and power play points. But he does not have a point in seven games and hasn't scored a goal in 12.

It was suggested that a kick-start against Nabokov, 28-13-5 with a 2.16 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage, in tonight's game at the Ice Palace would be a good way to right the ship.

Richards said the opponent doesn't matter.

"The way things have been going, I just want to try to get things turned around and have a good month here," he said. "Maybe it gives me extra motivation, for sure. But it's hard to control what he's done. The only thing I can control is what I do."

Lightning coach John Tortorella is sure Richards will rebound.

"Richie has a level of maturity that's very unique," Tortorella said. "The trophy, I don't even want to talk about it. All we're concerned with as a coaching staff is getting Richie back to the way he could be playing."

Nabokov has a few concerns himself. Even though Monday's trade of Steve Shields to the Mighty Ducks for Teemu Selanne made Nabokov the undisputed No. 1, he has lost his past three starts.

Richards called him "confident ... a great positional goalie who never has to make an amazing save because he's always there in front of the puck."

Still, Nabokov said, "If I keep losing, I'm not going to be the No. 1 goalie."

And perhaps he might lose what seems to be an iron grip on the Calder Trophy.

"Right now I'm not even thinking about that," he said. "It is so far ahead of me. All I'm thinking about is (today's) game."

Just like Richards.

"I want to get back into a good rhythm," he said, "and finish the season on a high note."

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