TAMPA — You can forgive Vinny Lecavalier for hesitating when asked about the career milestone he is about to achieve.
After all, the Lightning captain recalls teammate Marty St. Louis last season discussing what was to be his 500th consecutive game only to get hit by a puck at the morning skate, his streak stopped at 499 by a broken orbital bone.
But Saturday night at the Tampa Bay Times Forum after a season-opening victory over the Capitals, Lecavalier — set to play his 1,000th NHL game, all with Tampa Bay, today against the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum — decided to play the odds rather than give in to superstition.
"Well, we're not practicing (Sunday)," he said, "and I probably won't fall off my bike if I go out with my dog."
About the game, he said, "I'm excited about it, but you don't take it for granted. When I came in (to the league) at 18, I wasn't telling myself I was going to play 1,000 games, because you never know what's going to happen."
But this is not a story about longevity. It is about how Lecavalier, 32, in his 14th season, was smart enough to push his summer workout program last year in a different direction to keep up with a game that, as he has gotten older, has gotten so much faster.
Most of the work was done with Lightning strength coach Mark Lambert. The goal was to increase Lecavalier's overall power and his endurance for 45-second on-ice shifts. To get there, the No. 1 pick of the 1998 draft went through what he called one of his most difficult summer programs.
Strength training targeted the lower back, glutes and hamstrings. There were plyometric exercises to build Lecavalier's vertical leap, which Lambert said also helps increase speed.
"And then," Lambert said, "we incorporated all that into a cardio-type program."
The encouraging result: Lecavalier's effort in the 6-3 win over the Capitals, in which he had a goal, two points, five shots and four hits, including a clean shoulder-to-shoulder blast that knocked Washington's Jack Hillen out of the game.
He also won 18 of 24 faceoffs, and as coach Guy Boucher said, "He was an inspiration in the third period defensively, and for a captain, you can't ask for more than that."
"It's the best shape I've seen him in," Boucher said. "The league has changed. For the big guys who didn't necessarily have great speed, that's a tough thing. They have to elevate their game. Not many guys all of a sudden can have jump and speed at that age. Vinny just did that now."
"I don't feel old," said Lecavalier, 6 feet 4, 220 pounds. "I still feel I can play at a high level. I can play physical. I want to keep that. I don't want to change just because I'm getting older."
That said, Lecavalier's production has plummeted from 52 goals, 108 points in 2006-07 to last season's 22 goals, 49 points. He did miss 18 games last season because of injuries, but still.
"No one wants to plateau," St. Louis said. "Vinny's a proud guy and a hungry guy. He's trying to get better every year, and as we get older, it's one thing we have to try to do. He expects a lot of himself, and we do, too."
What Lecavalier expects is to play "many more games."
First, though, he has to get through No. 1,000, something Capitals coach and Hall of Fame player Adam Oates, who played 1,337 games, called "the best milestone in hockey" because "that means you had to play for a long time for a lot of coaches in a lot of situations, a lot of contact."
"It's important to me," Lecavalier said. "It's going to be a special game, but that's it. I have to move on from there."
Then, perhaps recalling what happened to St. Louis, he added, "knock on wood."