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Story of season: close, but a loss

The Lightning's gains show up, just not on the scoreboard, in a closing 2-1 defeat to the Capitals.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 9, 2001


WASHINGTON -- The Lightning fought through mixed emotions after Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Capitals at the MCI Center.

There was relief that another disappointing season had come to an end. But there was realization that improvement, though it didn't show up in the standings, had been made.

There was satisfaction in having fought hard against the Southeast Division champs in, by and large, a meaningless game. But there was frustration that, again, the Lightning couldn't get over the hump.

"This is not fun at all," rookie forward Brad Richards said. "It stinks. I had a lot of fun this season, don't get me wrong, but as far as losing the games, it's terrible. You're always thinking about it."

"It could have gone either way," coach John Tortorella said, "but that's where we're at."

And once again the Lightning is looking to the NHL draft to help it get where it wants to be.

Tampa Bay finished with 59 points, ahead of only the Islanders in the 30-team league. The good news is the Lightning will pick no worse than third in the June draft. It also has an 18.8 percent chance of gaining the No. 1 pick Tuesday, when the league holds its weighted draft lottery.

Had the Lightning gained one point, it would have moved ahead of the Thrashers to 28th place, and its odds of gaining the No. 1 pick -- and the chance to draft either Jason Spezza, the top-rated junior; or Russian prospect Ilja Kovalchuck, the top-rated European -- would have decreased to 14.4 percent.

So when Tortorella sat goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin and started Wade Flaherty, who had played one game since being acquired Feb. 16 from the Islanders, he knew someone might think he didn't mind losing the point. "I knew the question would be asked," Tortorella said.

The coach, who left goaltender Kevin Weekes in Tampa with a groin strain, was adamant that he coached to win. He said he always was against playing Khabibulin this season. And if the goaltender, whose rights were acquired March 5 from the Coyotes, hadn't pushed to play, Tortorella would have let him sit out until next season.

He said Khabibulin is not in game condition and was clearly exhausted after Thursday's 4-3 loss to the Rangers. And that, Tortorella said, changed Sunday's question to, why play him?

"We went in there to try to win a hockey game," he said. "There's no chance we didn't try to win."

Tampa Bay's good fight confirmed it. Flaherty made a solid 23 saves as the Capitals outshot the Lightning 25-24.

The Lightning took a 1-0 lead on Adrian Aucoin's power play goal 11:49 into the first period. It was the defenseman's fourth goal, but first since being acquired from the Canucks on Feb. 7 in the Dan Cloutier deal.

The Capitals tied it at 5:37 of the second period on Steve Konowalchuk's tip-in that ended a sequence that saw Richards whiff on a clearing attempt.

Ulf Dahlen's tip-in 32 seconds into the third period ended the scoring.

Washington gave Tampa Bay few good scoring chances in the final period and forced most shots to come from long range.

"We're in the game the whole time against a pretty good hockey team," Richards said. "Just one or two bad mistakes and it's a 2-1 loss."

There is no rest for the weary, or hockey teams that finish on 1-7-0-1 streaks.

Tortorella said the first day of summer conditioning is today at the Ice Palace, and when the players leave town, they will have a serious workout program to follow.

Cullimore acknowledged the disappointing finish, but said the record masks strides in defensive positioning and the willingness to battle, two aspects of the game the coaching staff has stressed.

"It's disappointing we're not in the playoffs," Cullimore said. "But a positive is we ended the season fairly strong and showed signs of what we want to do next year. Even though we're not getting the wins, we did not get embarrassed. All it is is a couple of bounces and a couple of calls that don't go our way, so that's a positive."

Maybe so, Tortorella said, "But the business is winning and losing, and we haven't won a bunch."

WINS AND LOSSES: The Lightning's 24 victories were five more than the past two seasons and were the most since 1996-97, when the team had 32. ... Tampa Bay finished a league-worst 7-28-3-3 on the road. ... The Lightning's 59 points were five more than last season and 12 more than 1998-99.

ODDS AND ENDS: ... Defenseman Andrei Zyuzin was lost in the first period with a left elbow injury. ... Richards' assist gave him 41 and 62 points, both of which lead all rookies. ... As expected, left wing Fredrik Modin, who led Tampa Bay with 32 goals, sat out with a jammed hip. ... Defenseman Kristian Kudroc was a healthy scratch.

* * *

UP NEXT: NHL draft, June 23-24, Sunrise; Lightning pick no worse than third overall.

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