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Defense remains depleted

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 1, 2000


BRANDON -- The defense may take a hit for the season opener. Then again, it might not.

Coach Steve Ludzik said after Saturday's practice at the Ice Sports Forum that Sergey Gusev, Andrei Zyuzin and Paul Mara may sit out Friday night's game against the Islanders at the Ice Palace.

"It's 50-50," Ludzik said.

Gusev is coming back from major reconstructive surgery and arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. Zyuzin is getting over a sprained right ankle and Mara's left pinky was broken Tuesday night in a fight with Florida's Rob Niedermayer.

All are practicing -- though Gusev and Zyuzin missed much of camp -- and could be cleared to play by head medical trainer Dave Boyer. But Ludzik said, "I don't think it's fair to throw them into the fire."

Ludzik said he expects defenseman Petr Svoboda and Bryan Muir to play. Svoboda sprained his left wrist and Muir sustained a concussion against the Panthers.

Boyer said Svoboda's pain has decreased, but X-rays will be taken Monday as a precaution.

But back to Gusev, Zyuzin and Mara.

Assistant general manager Jay Feaster said it is too early to make any determinations, though he said Mara was "doubtful to probable."

Final rosters have to be submitted by 3 p.m. Tuesday. Feaster said the players will be re-evaluated at that time.

If they can't go, the team will be down to six defensemen: Svoboda, Muir, Pavel Kubina, Cory Sarich, Marek Posmyk and Jassen Cullimore. Kristian Kudroc is unsigned and seems destined for juniors.

That means a call-up from the IHL's Detroit Vipers. Feaster would not make any commitments, but the logical choice would seem to be Ben Clymer, who played 60 games for Tampa Bay last season.

WEEKES RETURNS: Boyer said goaltender Kevin Weekes will skate today and take some shots in his first practice since straining his back Sept. 19 against the Capitals. Weekes received four days of treatment with a doctor in Los Angeles.

PLAYOFF BOUND: Zyuzin said he and his teammates will have no one to blame but themselves if they don't make the post-season.

"We have a lot of talent," he said. "Everybody realizes we are much better. It is up to us. If we play hard like we're supposed to play, we're going to make the playoffs."

Zyuzin, 22, made the playoffs in 1998 with the Sharks.

"It's the greatest feeling," he said. "I want to feel that feeling again ... We have to play hard. We have to make the playoffs. I think everybody knows what they have to do. They know the situation."

GAME TIME: A 60-minute intrasquad scrimmage will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Ice Palace. The game is free and will be followed by a 30-minute autograph session.

Ten questions

Before training camp, we posed 10 questions the Lightning needed to answer. With camp winding down, let's see how they were addressed.

1. Are two No. 1 goaltenders better than one?

How about three? With Kevin Weekes' back a question mark, Evgeny Konstantinov will likely be kept with the big club as insurance. Weekes was supposed to split the season with Dan Cloutier, but until Weekes passes a test under fire, Cloutier, who has played well, is the man.

2. Is this really Vinny Lecavalier's team?

Any doubt was erased when the team kept Lecavalier out of four preseason games because of a hyperextended left elbow that had pretty much healed after two. If coach Steve Ludzik had his druthers Lecavalier would have sat for all five games, but the captain insisted and played in the finale.

3. Who follows Vinny?

That would be Brad Richards, who seems to have sewn up the No. 2 center position as well as a point position on the power play. With five days until the opener, things can change, but Richards was in those spots for most of camp.

4. How does Richards fit in?

Very well, thank you. The 20-year-old has made the jump from juniors to the NHL with confidence and a coolness on the ice that usually takes a few years to develop. Things will get tougher in the regular season, but Richards has earned a chance.

5. Are Alexander Kharitonov and Thomas Ziegler really that good?

Kharitonov, this year's third-round draft choice out of Russia, was good enough to make the team as third-line left wing. He showed grit, speed and an ability to handle the puck, and he scored on his first league shot. Ziegler, a ninth-round pick, was technically skilled and knows the game, but he needs to acclimate himself to the league's speed and physical nature. The Swiss center was sent to IHL Detroit.

6. Which Todd Warriner will show up?

Seems like the one who had eight goals and six assists in his last 19 games. The left wing has looked confident and steady in camp. Part of that, of course, is being paired with Lecavalier. But part of it is an increased confidence.

7. Is a deep defense still very thin?

There is talent here, but it is young and raw. Ludzik challenged the team to show more defensive grit in the final preseason game against the Panthers. He was happy with the down-low coverage, which was shaky against the Capitals, but the transition defense showed some cracks. The coach promised it would be addressed this week.

8. Is there another deal to be done?

Never say never, but general manager Rick Dudley said he is comfortable starting the season with his current lineup. Still, with the waiver draft done and lineups solidifying, players could start to move. Another veteran defenseman would help stabilize the back line.

9. What of Ludzik's system?

It is still intact, though with increased team speed it may be executed better than it was last season. More experience and better goaltending also should help. Defensemen, however, will be there to play defense. They can help if the opportunity is clear, but offense from the defense will definitely be considered a luxury.

10. Shooting rockets or blanks?

Thirteen goals in five preseason games won't make opponents shudder, but stats tend to be fleeting in preseason. A good sign: Fredrik Modin is shooting the puck. The left wing with the 104-mph slap shot played just two preseason games because of injury and illness, but had seven shots and two goals. The power play converted 7 of 52 chances for a 13.5 percent efficiency. Not great. In fact, that was .5 percent less than last season, when the power play was ranked 24th. Scoring should pick up when Lecavalier plays regularly and players are more familiar with the system developed by assistant coach John Tortorella. -- Damian Cristodero

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