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Less stress yields more success for Kubina

No longer an alternate captain, the defenseman has improved his play.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 21, 2001

TAMPA -- The way Pavel Kubina figures it, losing his distinction as an alternate captain was, as it turned out, addition by subtraction.

Having the A taken away before the season hurt the Lightning defenseman and made him mad. But looking back, there is no doubt the decision by coach John Tortorella paid benefits.

"It was putting too much pressure on me," Kubina said. "I was trying to play like a leader all the time. Sometimes when you do that, you don't play as well."

Whether it was the blow to his ego, the addition of goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin or a coach who demands, sometimes in graphic language, Kubina be accountable, the 6-foot-4, 230-pounder is starting to fulfill expectations.

Kubina averages a team-high 25 minutes, 29 seconds of ice time, tied for ninth in the league among those playing at least 30 games.

He leads the team with 69 blocked shots, is second with 41 hits, is minus-1 and has channeled his offensive instincts -- instincts that got him into trouble in the past -- to complement the strict duties Tampa Bay's system demands of its defensemen.

Most important, Kubina, who at 24 will play his 251st game tonight against the Blues at the Ice Palace, might finally have grown up.

"I understand the game a little bit more," he said. "You play a couple of hundred games, and you're going to learn how to play. You're going to know what you're suppose to do. The experience gives you more confidence."

"He understands the team concept," Tortorella said. "He's playing versus the top lines and keeping them off the board. He's maturing and becoming more responsible."

Responsible enough that he will help the Czech Republic defend its gold medal at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

Though Kubina, a seventh-round pick in 1996, has lowered his plus/minus the past two seasons -- from minus-33 in 1998-99 to minus-14 last season -- there still are hurdles to overcome.

He is tied for second on the Lightning with 24 giveaways. One led to Doug Gilmour's goal Monday in Montreal. It wouldn't hurt if the big man were a little more physical. And then there's this:

"I'm still not happy with my offense," he said.

Old habits die hard, but in this case, he is correct.

Kubina has three goals, well behind last season's pace that earned him a career-high 11. He has one power-play goal -- he had six last season -- and he has missed some scoring chances.

There was the third-period breakaway that would have broken a tie at 1 stopped by Vancouver's Dan Cloutier. And there was a two-on-one with Vinny Lecavalier in which Kubina's booming slap shot hit squarely in the chest of the Oilers' Jussi Markkanen. Still, Kubina's big body has prompted Tortorella to use him in the slot with the man advantage. If he is not in the slot, he is on the point.

In those situations, the coach wants Kubina's offensive sensibilities to surface. Kubina has correctly suppressed the urge to jump into the play in five-on-five situations, waiting, more often than not, for the right moment.

"He wants to make a difference," Tortorella said. "That's from within. Some players don't have that."

Kubina's fortitude allowed him to use the loss of his A to his advantage. He could have sulked. After all, Tortorella was saying he was not ready to lead.

Instead, he got busy. When Tortorella barks at him on the bench, Kubina barks back -- on the ice.

"Kuby probably doesn't like a lot of things I say to him," Tortorella said. "And he puts it right back in my face and says, "I'm going to show you. That's the way I answer a challenge.' "

Of the A, Tortorella said, "I know he wants it back."

For Kubina, that would be a very nice addition.

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