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The view was fine, except for that loss

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2001


TAMPA -- There were a couple of ways to look at Thursday night's game at the Ice Palace.

One was to say "same old Lightning" for Tampa Bay letting the Rangers steal a 4-3 overtime victory in its final home game of the season.

The other was for the announced crowd of 18,454 to recognize the pieces of the team's future on display and to enjoy the view.

Okay, so goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin should have stopped Manny Malhotra, who scored the winner with 1:37 left in the extra period. But he did make a ton of saves in his second start and helped get Tampa Bay a point.

The Lightning finished 17-19-3-2 at the Ice Palace. Its second-most victories at home were five behind the record set in 1995-96.

"As a coach you like to leave with a win and some good thoughts," Lightning coach John Tortorella said. "But there have been some improvements. The team played with a lot of emotion, and it was an exciting game. I'm really happy with the effort of our guys."

No. 1 on that list was captain Vinny Lecavalier, who has been in a half-season funk. But placed on a line with friend Brad Richards, the 20-year-old center had his best game since December.

Lecavalier had a goal and an assist, got in a fight with New York tough guy Rich Pilon and was active all over the ice.

His breakaway goal 1:25 into the third period -- which made Rangers goaltender Guy Hebert look sick, by the way -- gave the Lightning a 3-2 lead. His 23rd goal came 24 seconds after New York's Radek Dvorak tied the score with his 31st goal on a give-and-go with Mark Messier.

Richards got two assists, including one that sprang Lecavalier's breakaway, giving him league-high totals among rookies of 40 assists and 61 points.

"It's a lot of fun when me and Richie are together," said Lecavalier, who played with Richards in prep school and juniors. "The old chemistry was there. One yell and I know right where he is. It's like having two of yourself on the ice."

Ben Clymer got his fifth goal in 18 games since being switched from defense to wing. And Martin St. Louis continued his outstanding play.

St. Louis' 18th goal, which gave the Lightning a 1-0 lead 1:05 into the second period, was one to remember. St. Louis passed the puck to himself off the back of the Rangers net to avoid Dvorak. He then scored on a deadly backhander that went top shelf.

"I thought for two teams not in the playoffs, it was a spirited affair," Rangers coach Ron Low said. "I thought there was a lot of emotion out there. It was a very good hockey game."

Now, time to come back to Earth.

Malhotra's goal came on just the kind of shot Khabibulin was acquired to stop. But the goaltender, whose M.O. is to tease shooters by opening the five hole and slamming it shut, didn't react fast enough as Malhotra, with defenseman Adrian Aucoin on his back, found the hole.

"I made a mistake," said Khabibulin, who made 31 stops as the Lightning was outshot 35-28. "There's nothing I can do now. All I can do is take more shots and try to get better. A lot of it is timing, and it's going to take a few more games until it's there."

Two defensive mistakes were particularly costly.

Lecavalier and defenseman Andrei Zyuzin messed up a switch that gave New York's Adam Graves all kinds of time to shoot and left Colin Forbes uncovered. Forbes' tip-in tied the score at 1 at 6:06 of the second period.

It was the former Lightning forward's first goal in 70 games, dating to March 2, 2000, with the Senators.

Richards got turned around on defense and lost track of Michal Grosek, whose goal at 11:52 of the third period tied the score at 3.

"For me, maybe I could have contributed more," Richards said. "It would have been so much better if we would have won."

That's one way to look at it.

MODIN, WEEKES HURTING: Lightning left wing Fredrik Modin sat out the game with a jammed left hip sustained in Wednesday's game against the Penguins. The Lightning's leading scorer with 32 goals is day-to-day and may miss Sunday's season finale at Washington.

Wade Flaherty was Khabibulin's backup because Kevin Weekes pulled a groin during Wednesday's game. Weekes also may miss Sunday's game.

ODDS AND ENDS: With his second-period assist on Clymer's goal, Lecavalier became the third Lightning player to score 50 points in back-to-back seasons (the others were Brian Bradley in 1992-93 and 1993-94 and John Cullen in 1995-96 and 1996-97). ... The Rangers were without left wing and 28-goal scorer Jan Hlavac, who sprained his left medial collateral ligament Wednesday against the Hurricanes. ... The Lightning recalled forward Dmitry Afanasenkov from the IHL's Detroit Vipers. ... Center Brian Holzinger was scratched with a hairline fracture in his right ankle.

* * *

UP NEXT: Lightning at Capitals, 3 p.m. Sunday. TV: Sunshine.

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