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For Lightning's Lecavalier, a small step

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — When Vinny Lecavalier reminisces about his career, the goal he scored Tuesday will not immediately spring to mind.

The shot might have gone high had it not clipped an opponent's stick. And it came during a game that, while exciting, was more notable because it was the last of the preseason.

But in the context of the past five-plus months of injury and rehabilitation, the third-period, tying goal, and the shootout goal that gave Tampa Bay a 3-2 victory over HC Slovan in front of 8,000 at sold-out, pulsating Samsung Arena, will have its place.

"It's nice that the puck went in," Lecavalier said. "It really builds some confidence."

And perhaps some momentum. As goaltender Mike Smith said, "He's going to get better and better from now on."

It probably is unfair that every step Lecavalier takes, good and bad, is picked at and analyzed. But it comes with the territory as one of the world's highest profile players, a captain and holder of a new 11-year, $85-million contract extension.

He also was playing in just his second game since April surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder.

So when the Lightning's all-time leader in goals and points scored on the power play with 6:26 left in the third period to tie the score at 2, then made what coach Barry Melrose called a "beautiful move" to score backhanded along the ice in the shootout Tampa Bay won 2-1, a bit of equilibrium seemed restored.

"The shoulder felt really good on the ice," Lecavalier said. "I got hit a lot more tonight," than in his first game Sunday in Berlin.

"Tonight was a great test," he added. "It was kind of a perfect progression. The last game wasn't physical at all. This game was more physical, a better game, a tighter game. I'm excited. I'm ready to go."

The Lightning (5-1) seemed ready in many ways.

Smith was solid in goal. Lecavalier's wings Marty St. Louis and Vinny Prospal skated well. Evgeny Artyukhin scored after a half-rink rush, though the puck was inadvertently knocked in by a Slovan player, and Jussi Jokinen scored the first shootout goal.

But there also were kinks.

Tampa Bay had trouble finishing and hit three crossbars and a post. The team lost focus in the second period and took a series of frustration penalties that kept it on the penalty kill most of the time.

"Bad penalties," coach Barry Melrose said. "I think we had $40-million (in salaries) on the bench in the second period."

And though its puck movement was better, the power play was 1-for-7 to finish the preseason 3-for-33.

Lecavalier, too, fought the puck at times, once smacking his stick to the ice after the puck rolled off his blade.

"It's frustrating when it happens. It's like a spasm," he said. "It comes off your stick and you're like, 'Why is this happening?' But I'm not thinking it's because of the shoulder. It's because it's my first games."

"The good thing is, Vinny got another game under his belt," Melrose said. "He was better in this game than the last one, and I played the (heck) out of him in the third period. He did a lot of skating, and that's good."

Good for a second game, anyway.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

For Lightning's Lecavalier, a small step 09/30/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 1, 2008 2:43pm]
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