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Confidence is giving Cullimore a lift

Defenseman shrugs off last season's strain with coach Steve Ludzik and finds a new attitude.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 28, 2000


TAMPA -- Steve Ludzik was addressing his players before a recent game in Los Angeles when his eyes spotted defenseman Jassen Cullimore.

Soon thereafter, the Lightning coach's pregame speech became an impromptu confessional for all to hear.

"Culli, you didn't like me much last year, did you?" Ludzik remembered saying. "He wouldn't answer and I said, "Did you? You didn't like me much last year, did you?' "

Cullimore needed no more prodding.

"He said, "No,' " Ludzik recalled. "I said, "Well, I didn't like you much last year either, but I do like you this year because you've got a little bit of a jump in your step.' "

The relationship between Cullimore and the Lightning has been strained for the past 18 months.

Left unprotected in two expansion drafts and sent to the minors for 16 games last season, Cullimore has felt unwanted by the Lightning at times.

Right now, Tampa Bay can't stand to be without him, and the relationship is improving every day.

"Jassen is a study in determination," Lightning general manager Rick Dudley said.

Ludzik said, "Every night, he's been one of our most dependable guys. He's like a rock back there. He's not even close to the same guy that played here last year."

Going into tonight's game against Philadelphia at the Ice Palace, Cullimore is plus-3 over the past nine and is tied with right wing Mike Johnson for the team lead at plus-6 this season.

"I think I played the same last year, honestly," he said Wednesday. "I don't think my game has changed. I think maybe I have a little more confidence.

"I think the big thing is the coaching staff has more confidence in me this year than they did last year. I kind of feed off that."

The Lightning acquired Cullimore off waivers from Montreal in 1998 and he played in 78 games during the 1998-99 season.

But because of his salary -- now $900,000 per year, according to the NHLPA's Web site -- Tampa Bay made him available in the 1999 expansion draft.

"At that point in time, he was a guy that was making too much money for what he did for us," Dudley said.

A veteran of 219 career NHL games at the time, Cullimore wasn't picked up. The Lightning subsequently loaned him to Providence of the American Hockey League for 16 games.

"When I came back last year, I probably didn't have the best team attitude because of the way things went," he said.

Cullimore played in 46 games last season and became one of the Lightning's most consistent defenders.

He and Ludzik met twice during training camp and once more before the season.

"I had a talk with (Ludzik) about changing my attitude toward the team," Cullimore said. "Rather than having a bee in my bonnet about what went on last year, I needed to accept and commit to the team."

Ludzik said: "He said he was going to stop complaining about everything and start working."

Which is what has happened.

"He does his job on the penalty kill and he's playing good, defensive hockey," defenseman Pavel Kubina said. "I know he really improved from last year. He's got confidence now."

As part of a defense that has yielded five goals in the past four games and killed seven of its last 13 penalties, Cullimore is second on the team with 72 hits and 40 blocked shots.

He averages 18:02 of ice time.

"You know when I had those meetings (with Ludzik) he said that he wanted me to commit to the team," Cullimore said. "I feel just now that the team has committed toward me. And I think that's what I needed."

BUCS ON ICE: Lightning fans going to Sunday's game against Toronto at 7:30 p.m. at the Ice Palace can catch the Bucs' NFC wild-card game at 4:15 p.m. A 12- by 16-foot videoboard will be set up outside the arena, near the entrance to Shots at Channelside. The Bucs game also will be shown on the scoreboard above center ice. The arena opens at 4 p.m.

Tonight: Lightning vs. Flyers

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

TV: Lightning Hockey Network; Citrus County: Ch. 18 for upgrade, digital and Black Diamond, Ch. 20 for regular system; Hernando: Ch. 18 for upgrade and digital; Hillsborough: Ch. 44; Pinellas: Ch. 7; Pasco: Ch. 62 on cable-ready TVs, Ch. 67 with a cable box; Verizon Media (Clearwater, Pinellas Park): Ch. 525; Moffat Communications (Zephyrhills), Ch. 2. Call (866) 835-3562 for information.

RADIO: WDAE-AM 620.

THE LOWDOWN: This is the second game between the teams this season. The Flyers scored three goals during a 76-second span to break a 3-3 tie and win 6-3 on Dec. 6 at the First Union Center. ... The Lightning's home win against Philadelphia came on Nov. 22, 1999. ... The Flyers were 4-0-3 under new coach Bill Barber before their game against Florida on Wednesday. ... Left wing John LeClair (back spasms), who has 29 goals in 36 games against the Lightning, and Chris McAllister (bruised right hand) did not make the trip. ... Lightning center Vinny Lecavalier's last goal came against Philadelphia, nine games ago. ... Kevin Weekes is expected to start his fourth straight in goal for the Lightning. He stopped 20 of 22 shots against Carolina on Tuesday and has a .896 save percentage. ... Defensemen Petr Svoboda (concussion) and Craig Millar (broken left kneecap) are out as is right wing Stan Drulia (back spasms). ... Approximately 1,500 tickets remain for tonight's game. ... Left wing Fredrik Modin and rookie center Brad Richards each had one goal and an assist against Carolina. ... The Lightning has killed 31 of its last 41 penalties and is one for its last 29 on the power play.

-- Compiled by Kevin Kelly.

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