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Lightning fills up on home cooking

But improved form at the Ice Palace has not translated to success on the road.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001


TAMPA -- The differences are as obvious as night and day, or should that be home and away?

When the Lightning plays at the Ice Palace, it battles in the corners, turns up the forecheck and plays steady, positional defense.

On the road, it plays on its heels, plays not to make mistakes, plays not to lose.

The results have been startling. Tampa Bay is a respectable 14-14-3 at the Ice Palace. On the road, it is an NHL-worst 5-26-3-3.

"That comes from inexperience," defenseman Grant Ledyard said. "That comes from a team that has only a certain few guys who can step up and show leadership at certain times."

"It's the same game. It's the same ice," forward Martin St. Louis said. "It's a different building and it's not our fans, but we're professional and it shouldn't affect us."

Oh, but it does.

The Lightning has given up 144 of its 234 goals on the road. It has given up a league-high nine of its 11 short-handed goals on the road. And 39 of the 62 goals Tampa Bay has allowed while killing penalties have come, you guessed it, on the road.

This is not a recent phenomenon. The Lightning hasn't won more than seven road games in a season since it nabbed 17 in 1996-97. Since then, Tampa Bay is 24-117-16-6 on the road, 50-86-18-4 at home.

This season's numbers are even more acute because the Lightning, with 10 of its final 14 games at home, beginning tonight against the expansion Blue Jackets, has a chance to earn a winning record at the Ice Palace.

"I just think we play with more confidence at home," forward Gordie Dwyer said. "We have great fan support and the arena is really loud."

Then Dwyer said something unusual. "And we have a great ice surface," he said.

That's not what one normally hears about the Ice Palace. In fact, after Tampa Bay's 2-1 overtime victory over the Sharks on Tuesday, San Jose coach Gary Sutter said the Ice Palace had the worst ice "in the history of hockey."

But if opponents are worrying about the playing surface instead of the Lightning, then the team really does have a home-ice advantage.

John Tortorella certainly thinks so. The Lightning coach thinks the extended home stretch to end the season is a great time to build a framework for 2001-02.

Playing at home affords the Lightning better and more extensive practices. It also provides more comfortable surroundings during games to put what is preached into practice.

"For the situation we're in as a team out of the playoffs, this is a great situation to work on our game," Tortorella said. "We're getting prepared for next year to know how we want to play.

"No one likes being in this situation, but it's a good situation in changing the mind-set for when we come to camp next year."

There have been definite benefits. The Lightning has won three straight at the Ice Palace. Goaltender Kevin Weekes has allowed one goal in that streak and has two shutouts, including Thursday's 1-0 victory over the Hurricanes.

That win was important because it came against a team in a playoff race and desperate for points. The Lightning also played a poised third period in a duel of neutral-zone defenses that was much harder fought than the Hurricanes' 20-15 advantage in shots indicates.

Tampa Bay did an excellent job of pushing Carolina's attack away from the slot. And when St. Louis scored the goal, it came because defenseman Stan Neckar pinched to keep the puck in the Hurricanes' zone and St. Louis, Brian Holzinger and Alexander Kharitonov charged the net.

"A key for us to get better on the road is to keep winning at home," defenseman Cory Sarich said. "Eventually it will spill over. It has to happen sooner or later."

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