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Losing unknown to young guns

Lightning's youthful prospects grapple with a misery they rarely experienced - team failure.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 2000


TAMPA -- As best Sheldon Keefe can recall, the last time he was on a losing hockey team was when he was 12 years old.

Brad Richards said he never had been on a losing team. Neither had Vinny Lecavalier.

Until they joined the Lightning.

Tampa Bay's three youngest players, each 20 years old with careers defined by success, are learning to deal with failure. Not personal failure, but team failure, which they said is the bitterest of all.

"It bothers me a lot," Richards, a rookie center, said after Thursday's practice at the Ice Palace. "So many things are better when you win. Your life is better off the ice when you win.

"I hate it," he said of losing, "and I think everybody in here hates it."

With six points and a 2-7-1-1 record, the Lightning is last in the NHL. Not just inthe Eastern Conference, the NHL. It also tied the team record set in 1997-98 for fewest points after 10 games.

If that isn't enough, Tampa Bay, which is giving up an average of 34.7 shots on goal and 5.1 goals, faces the red-hot Islanders tonight at the Ice Palace.

"It's tough," said Keefe, a rookie right wing. "You play the game to win and when you're not winning, a lot of things get tough. Mentally, guys lose confidence and it just doesn't seem like you get the bounces you do when you're winning."

"It's difficult, but you have to stay positive," said Lecavalier, a center just three seasons removed from juniors. "You have to be stronger than that and work even harder to get through this."

Younger players can work through it, in part, by talking to older, experienced teammates who have been through the wars. That's easier said than done with the Lightning, whose average age is 24.8.

Richards and Lecavalier are best friends and talk often. But Lecavalier's 172 career games with Tampa Bay include 114 losses.

"I can talk to Vinny and he can tell me how it is to not win," Richards said. "But he's only 20 years old, too."

So Richards said he has tapped into 34-year-old defenseman Petr Svoboda, who is in his 17th NHL season and has played 127 playoff games for the Canadiens, Sabres and Flyers.

"He has talked to me about how it is to win," Richards said. "He's won a Stanley Cup (with Montreal) and I can get a good idea of how it really is and what it really takes and what it was like when he was winning. Guys taking their four hours and putting everything into it. It's something everybody wants to go through."

Keefe has found strength in numbers.

"The guys in here always encourage you," he said of his teammates. "It's been tough, but I've always been a mentally strong person and I've been able to handle and learn something from these situations."

General manager Rick Dudley isn't surprised Keefe has that outlook.

In fact, Dudley said Keefe, Richards and Lecavalier probably are handling Tampa Bay's adversity better than other young players might because of their histories of success.

Lecavalier was the top North American prospect when the Lightning drafted him No. 1 overall in 1998. Richards was the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's leading scorer last season and MVP of the Memorial Cup tournament.

Keefe was last season's leading scorer in the Ontario Hockey League.

"Few athletes have gone through everything good," Dudley said. "What they have to do is to be able to draw on experiences that started out bad. ... They are probably handling this better than other people because of their confidence."

But confidence can be fleeting.

"When you win, everything is confidence," Richards said. "If you make a mistake, at least you're winning. Now, if you make a mistake, maybe it was you who lost the game."

Tonight: Lightning vs. Islanders

WHEN/WHERE: 7:30; Ice Palace, Tampa.

TV/RADIO: Lightning Hockey Network; WDAE-AM 620.

THE LOWDOWN: The Islanders are on a 5-0-1 streak. Their 5-3-2 record after 10 games is far ahead of last season's 2-6-2. ... Lightning coach Steve Ludzik said he may not decide who will start in goal until game time. Dan Cloutier, out since Oct. 21 with left biceps tendinitis, was supposed to return but has not progressed enough. Kevin Weekes has been pulled in two of his past three games. Dieter Kochan has done well in three appearances with a 2.40 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage. ... The Islanders have gotten outstanding goaltending from Wade Flaherty, who is 3-0-0 with a 1.47 goals-against average and a .952 save percentage. But John Vanbiesbrouck is 15-6-5 against the Lightning. ... New York will be without defenseman Eric Cairns (thumb). ... The Islanders have converted five of their last 18 power-play chances. ... The teams played to a 3-3 tie opening night at the Ice Palace. ... Tampa Bay leads the series 18-15-3 and is 9-8-2 at home. ... Going into Thursday night's games, former Lightning defenseman Roman Hamrlik was tied for third among defensemen with 11 points (six goals, five assists). ... The Islanders have four short-handed goals on the road. Tampa Bay has allowed five short-handed goals.

-- Compiled by DAMIAN CRISTODERO

Where to watch the Lightning

Tonight's Lightning game is one of 20 that will be shown this season on the Lightning Hockey Network. The games are produced by Sunshine Network and offered to area cable systems to be placed on a channel of their choice.

Time Warner cable will show the game on Ch. 18 on its upgrade and digital systems in Citrus and Hernando counties and in the Black Diamond area of Citrus County.

On the regular system in Citrus, it will be Ch. 20, in Hillsborough Ch. 44, in Pinellas Ch. 7 and in Pasco County Ch. 62 on cable-ready televisions and Ch. 67 for those with a cable box.

On Verizon Media Ventures in Clearwater and Pinellas Park, it will be Ch. 525, and on Moffat Communications in Zephyrhills Ch. 2. Sunshine has set up an information line to assist viewers. Call (866) 835-3562.

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