TAMPA — Lightning defenseman Mark Barberio said everyone is asking when he will finally cut his long black curly hair.
"I keep saying, 'Soon,' " he said with a smile.
Barberio, 23, promised to lose his shoulder-length locks once he scored his first NHL goal. But after tallying two Jan. 19 against Carolina — and another Saturday against Colorado — he's waiting to find the right charity tie-in. His first trip to the barber since January 2012 might have to wait until after this week's road trip, which begins Tuesday.
"I'm going to cherish it while I can," Barberio said of his long hair. "I may videotape myself to say, 'See, I had this.' "
Barberio will lose some hair but has gained plenty of confidence in recent weeks. A healthy scratch off and on early in the season, he has displayed more poise and assertiveness on both ends of the ice. As a result, Lightning coach Jon Cooper said it has been "really hard" to take him out of the lineup.
"He's not letting the game come to him," Cooper said. "He's coming after the game. He's kind of been back to the Barbs we've seen in the last couple years, really jumping into plays. His timing is right. He has command when he has the puck. He had kind of a nervous game to him probably the first 25-30 games, and I think now he's gotten a little bit of that attitude, 'I think I kind of belong in this league. I belong here.' "
Barberio, who has three goals and five assists and is plus-16 in 34 games, said it has been a natural progression.
"You come in kind of shell-shocked a bit, and you get better and better," Barberio said. "Same thing happened in the AHL, and I feel it's taken a bit longer at this level. There's still a lot of work to be done. But it's fun, all part of the process."
Barberio always had offensive ability. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Montreal native racked up 13 goals and 48 assists in 2011-12 with Norfolk in winning the AHL defenseman of the year award. But it took him 34 NHL games (including two last season) to score, a slap shot from the point. After another against Carolina, Barberio joked his goal Saturday — a deflected wrister that trickled through — might not have happened earlier in the season. But Cooper said he has earned those breaks.
"He's going to take off soon," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. "He's been showing the last few weeks how good a player he is."
The key for Barberio is finding the right balance of being patient while also taking initiative.
"I think my poise with the puck has gotten better," Barberio said. "At the start of the year, I'd rush plays and get the puck, and I'd think I'd have no time. Where now, I'm picking up the puck, got my head up and taking an extra second. And I'd like to think defensively I've been improving. I'm not the biggest guy. So when I'm playing some big forwards, I've got to make sure my positioning and stick is at the top of its game. It's still a work in progress. But I feel like I'm in the right direction."