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Lightning facing crucial test


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 15, 2000

TAMPA -- The more Lightning left wing Fredrik Modin thought about it, the more important tonight's game with the Thrashers at the Ice Palace became.

Winless Tampa Bay needs the boost a victory would provide heading into a four-game road trip. The team also wants to continue building on the good -- and there was a lot of it -- that came out of Friday night's 3-2 loss to the Penguins.

And it's a division game against a second-year team the Lightning desperately wants to keep ahead of in the standings.

"I don't want to say it's a must win," Modin said after Saturday's practice at the Ice Sports Forum, "but it's very important."

The Lightning wouldn't mind exorcising a few demons as well.

The Thrashers were like fingernails on a chalkboard to Tampa Bay last season. Atlanta took the series 3-1-1 and outscored the Lightning 20-14.

The teams created an interesting dynamic.

Lightning center Vinny Lecavalier said Tampa Bay took the Thrashers lightly because they were an expansion team. On the other hand, Atlanta left wing Andrew Brunette said the Thrashers were confident playing the Lightning because they thought the teams were evenly matched.

"They don't have an Eric Lindros or Mark Messier or somebody like that, and maybe we felt a little more at ease playing them," said Brunette, who had team-highs of five goals and eight points against Tampa Bay. "At times last year, we backed off against more talented teams."

Atlanta coach Curt Fraser, who used to go up against Lightning coach Steve Ludzik in the IHL, said his familiarity with Ludzik's coaching style may have been an advantage.

Ludzik agreed the teams were at the same stage in their developments.

"We were both expansion teams," he said.

"They were an expansion team, but they've got some pretty good players," Lightning goaltender Dan Cloutier said. "They work hard and that's the thing we stressed all last year; to work for 60 minutes."

Tampa Bay did that for the first time this season against the Penguins.

The forwards attacked crisply and in unison, the defense was solid and, thanks to a tweaked forecheck that let the defense pinch more, the Lightning forced 14 turnovers.

Tampa Bay lost the game thanks in part to superb goaltending from Jean-Sebastien Aubin and two own goals. But it proved it could play a smart, disciplined game against an established team.

"There is no reason that effort and focus and intensity shouldn't be there every game," right wing Mike Johnson said.

"They're a pretty potent team up front," Thrashers center Ray Ferraro said. "And they've got some guys who can score. Lecavalier's already a good player and he's going to be a great player. ... I know they felt they should have played better against us last season."

Just ask Cloutier, who had a 4.38 goals-against average and a reach-up-to-touch-bottom .838 save percentage in four games against Atlanta.

"It just seemed like I had my bad games against them for some reason," he said. "I wasn't at my best."

Except for the series finale, which Tampa Bay won 2-1 behind Cloutier's 25 saves and Modin's two goals, neither was the rest of the team.

"It's not mental this year," Modin said. "It might have been last year because we had some serious problems with them."

Tampa Bay gets a fresh start, in a sense, because almost half the roster was acquired after the season series with Atlanta.

"It's a new season," Modin said. "It's just another game."

A very important one.

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