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Club is chasing its just reward

The Lightning is improving, and it wants the points to prove it.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 14, 2000


PHOENIX -- Andrei Zyuzin said the Lightning is ready to take the next step.

To the Tampa Bay defenseman, that means developing a mind-set of being able to compete with any team in the league. After Monday's 2-2 tie with the Avalanche, Zyuzin said he sees that happening.

He certainly had no fear of predicting a victory tonight against the Coyotes at America West Arena.

"I don't think we're going to lose or take one point," Zyuzin said after Wednesday's practice at the Ice Den. "I think we're going to take two points. This is the best atmosphere right now. I can feel it."

The Lightning is in an interesting position. It has just one victory in its past eight games. Yet, Tampa Bay has played better than that, much better when you consider Monday's game and a hard-fought 2-0 loss to Colorado on Friday at the Ice Palace.

The players clearly see those games as steppingstones.

"I think it reinforces things you already know," right wing Mike Johnson said. "If we work hard and play disciplined, we'll have a good game."

And it would be a shame not to capitalize on the momentum.

"It's huge," defenseman Cory Sarich said. "It's important we don't put ourselves down and say it's luck. As a team, we've started growing every game. I think you can see the difference."

The team has not seen much difference in the standings. The Lightning has earned just four points in its past eight games, including one for an overtime loss against the Panthers.

Going into Wednesday night's games, Tampa Bay was six points behind the Southeast Division-leading Capitals and, if you don't consider division leaders, seven points behind the Rangers for the final playoff spot.

The way coach Steve Ludzik sees it, the time to take comfort from good efforts is over if they don't result in victories.

For example, former Flyers coach Craig Ramsay complimented Tampa Bay for its speed after Philadelphia beat the Lightning 6-3. Colorado's Joe Sakic praised Tampa Bay's hustle and work ethic after the 2-0 victory.

And Avalanche coach Bob Hartley said he sees Tampa Bay as a team that will "win its share of games" and "progress in the second half of the season."

"Enough patting us on the back, and give us your two points and get on your way," Ludzik said. "We have to start expecting points and wins on the road."

"Ties aren't good enough anymore," center Vinny Lecavalier said. "It's nice to say that we are playing better, but we have to win and get some points."

Despite their brilliant 9-1-5 start, the Coyotes are vulnerable.

Phoenix is 2-5-2 in its past nine games, and Jeremy Roenick and Keith Tkachuk have just one goal and four assists between them in that streak.

In a somewhat surprising stat, considering Phoenix's reputation as a potent offensive team, the Lightning has four 20-point scorers to the Coyotes' three.

The great equalizer for Phoenix has been goaltender Sean Burke, who is 10-5-7 in 23 games and has a 1.86 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage.

To their credit, Lightning players are looking at tonight's game for what they can gain rather than lose. It's the same attitude Zyuzin said the team brought into the home-and-home series with the Avalanche.

"Every time we play a really good team, we learn something," he said. "The last two games we proved to ourselves we could play offense and good defense."

"You have to take from every game you play, whether it's against a last-place team or a team on top of its division," Sarich said. "You have to do things right and learn from that. Now, our biggest thing is to do that every night."

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