A record Ice Palace crowd watches Tampa Bay and Lecavalier stop Pittsburgh and Lemieux 5-1.
By PETE YOUNG
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 18, 2001
TAMPA -- It was three holidays for the price of one Saturday at the Ice Palace: Christmas, New Year's and, of course, St. Patrick's Day.
Christmas arrived with the appearance of Pittsburgh's unretired megastar, Mario Lemieux. New Year's -- well, it's more like New Era. The Lightning's seismic signing of All-Star goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin was announced before the game.
St. Patrick's Day? The Lightning played like it had tapped into the Luck of the Irish and took another small step in its climb to respectability, culminating a successful six-game homestand with a 5-1 win over the Penguins.
Sparked by remarkable effort from its penalty-killing unit, which scored twice and didn't allow a goal, the Lightning finished the homestand 5-0-0-1. The 11 points match the franchise's best homestand (5-0-1 in February1997), and its 54 points equal its total from last season with 10 games remaining.
"(The penalty killing), that was the key," said Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella, whose team killed eight power plays. "If they score a couple of power-play goals, it could have been a different story.
"I think (the team saw) some success at the beginning of the homestand, and it just grows. It's a confidence thing."
Penguins fans flocked to the rink to see Lemieux, and the attendance of 20,835 set an Ice Palace record for hockey. With all of the attention on Lemieux and Khabibulin, it was the Lightning's erstwhile reason to get excited, Vinny Lecavalier, who stole the show in the first period.
Lecavalier buried a shot from close range to put the Lightning ahead 1-0 at the 11:54 mark, his first goal in seven games. At 17:52 of the first, Lecavalier used his hands for another purpose, unloading six unanswered punches on Pittsburgh's Josef Beranek, and he was assessed an extra two-minute penalty for instigating the fight.
The short-handed Lightning made it 2-0 1:10 later, however, on a superb individual effort by Martin St. Louis, who knocked in his own rebound.
Lemieux got the Penguins on the board less than a minute into the second. Lurking ahead of the play at the Lightning blue line, he corraled a long cross-ice lead pass from Andrew Ference with his hand, kicked it ahead to his stick, cruised in and beat Kevin Weekes to make it 2-1.
The 35-year-old Hall of Famer, who ended a 3 1/2-year retirement in December, has 31 goals in 35 games.
It was 2-1 at 8:33 of the third when Andrei Zyuzin picked up a double minor for high-sticking, and the Tampa Bay penalty-killing unit responded again. Moments later, defenseman Pavel Kubina followed the puck deep into the Pittsburgh zone and unloaded a sharp-angle shot that beat a surprised Johan Hedberg for a 3-1 lead. A St. Louis goal (his 17th) on the power play at 16:59 and a Lecavalier goal (his 20th) at 18:08 capped the scoring.
One of the big questions was how Weekes would react to the news about Khabibulin. He stopped 25 of 26 shots and stifled the power play.
"It was an honor to play against probably the best player the game's ever seen," Weekes said. "I don't think any team is supposed to lose to us in the eyes of the league, or maybe the referees.
"We have to control what we can, and that's our effort, and that's what we've been doing. We've all played extremely well."