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Weekes quietly burns, stays hot on ice

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2001


TAMPA -- Kevin Weekes has a chip on his shoulder. You couldn't see it, but its jagged edges were obvious Saturday night after the Lightning's 4-1 victory over the Blue Jackets.

One of the NHL's hottest goaltenders has been doing a slow burn since Monday, when Tampa Bay traded with the Coyotes for the negotiating rights to Nikolai Khabibulin. Weekes' beef isn't with the goalie sitting out his second straight NHL season because of a contract dispute. It is with how he perceives Lightning management's handling of the situation.

"That's right," Weekes said. "I've been battling all season from Day 1, and when people do things a certain way, it doesn't sit well with me."

Weekes was talking about general manager Rick Dudley, who has wondered about Weekes' durability.

Dudley also challenged Weekes to prove over the last quarter of the season that he could be the team's goaltender of the future. Three weeks later, Dudley landed the rights to Khabibulin.

"I was fortunate," Weekes said. "I have great parents and an awesome family and learned much from them. A lot of these things that are instilled in me have a great impact on my hockey and everyday life. When people question that, they're disrespecting me and I don't like to be disrespected."

No disrespect intended, Dudley said. He simply saw a chance to upgrade the team's goaltending, and said he expects Weekes to be an integral part.

"Have we ever said (Weekes) can't be the No. 1?" Dudley said. "We've just upped the level.

"You win in this league if you have extremely good goaltending. That's a fact. Everything else is secondary. While I'm very happy with the way Kevin Weekes has played, it's not like he's had a career like Patrick Roy just yet. I'm thrilled, but we have to hedge all bets. We have to make sure we have the best goaltending possible."

You couldn't get much better than Weekes since Dudley's February challenge, issued after he missed two games with a strained groin.

In 10 games since, Weekes is 5-4-1 with a 2.00 goals-against average, three shutouts and a .926 save percentage. Since the trade, Weekes is 3-0 with a 0.67 GAA, a shutout and a .967 save percentage.

"If you have a nice fire burning already and you go and get some lighter fluid and add to it, the fire is going to intensify," Weekes said.

Weekes, 17-26-3 overall with four shutouts, a 3.07 GAA and a .901 save percentage, is a work in progress.

He has allowed soft goals at crucial times. He needs to improve his puck handling. And though he has improved greatly under the tutelage of goaltenders coach Jeff Reese, he must use his stick to better break up cross-ice passes that skirt the crease.

He also has benefited greatly from the resurgent play of his teammates, who steadied on defense and cut average scoring chances by a third.

"The game seems so much more controlled," Weekes said, "because, as a team, we're playing so much more controlled."

But since Jan. 3, when the Lightning began a month and a half swan dive, Weekes has a .905 save percentage and a 2.50 GAA, meaning the team had problems bigger than any it perceived in net.

Dudley smartly addressed some by acquiring forward Matthew Barnaby and defensemen Adrian Aucoin, Grant Ledyard and Stan Neckar.

As for durability, Weekes missed half of training camp with a back problem. A knee injury and two groin injuries during the regular season kept him out of nine games.

But he has played 51, and among goaltenders born in 1975 or later, only Chicago's Jocelyn Thibault has played more games the past two seasons: Thibault 117, Weekes 107. Most top goaltenders are older.

This is not an advertisement for Weekes. But with all the Khabibulin talk going on, factors shaping Weekes' state of mind are important.

Will Weekes ask for a trade? He said he will wait and see. There are no guarantees Khabibulin will sign. And who's to say Weekes won't come in next season and beat out Khabibulin straight up?

Until then, Weekes said he has "no difficulty being in the moment."

"My teammates are out there battling hard," he said. "These are my teammates. They know when it's game time and time for war, I'm ready."

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