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Rookie Steven Stamkos remains in the Tampa Bay Lightning's lineup

TAMPA — Rookie C Steven Stamkos' special strength program with the Lightning has typically included a caveat that he would rest every three or so games.

But last year's top overall draft pick said his goal has been simple: play so well that the coaching staff won't take him out of the lineup.

So far, so good.

Stamkos said before his seventh straight game Saturday that the reason he has been playing some of his best hockey of the season is more than building strength. It's building confidence. Stamkos said he's trying things now that he was maybe a little afraid to early in the season.

"If you watch me now compared to the beginning of the year, it's like night and day," Stamkos said. "It takes you a while to get a grasp of the game, but everything seems to be clicking right now."

Coach Rick Tocchet said that Stam­kos will continue to take a game off at certain points but "he's done a good job."

NO PAIN, NO GAIN: D Matt Smaby, seen in the locker room walking in a boot on his sore right foot, said it sometimes has been easier to skate than walk.

Not only has Smaby been gutting it out to help the banged-up blue line (which got worse when Marek Malik left Saturday's game against Washington with a lower-body injury), Tocchet said he has "been probably one of the most improved players in the last four weeks."

"I think he's our best defenseman below the hashmarks in the corners," Tocchet said. "He disrupts a lot of plays down in the corners. He's a sharp kid. I see his development getting better and better."

Though Smaby, 24, would classify his injury as more "uncomfort" than pain, G Mike McKenna said Smaby's "warrior mentality" has been impressive.

BUC LOVES BOLTS: Bucs coach Raheem Morris, who drew a large ovation from the St. Pete Times Forum crowd when he said, "Let's Play Hockey!" is no stranger to the Lightning.

Morris said he has special memories of watching Tampa Bay win the Stanley Cup in 2004. In Game 5, Morris said, he and then-Bucs assistant Mike Tomlin sat in the front row, "banging on the glass." Morris watched the clinching Game 7 from a box.

Odds and ends: RW Steve Downie returned. C Ryan Craig and RW Adam Hall were healthy scratches. … Tocchet said that D Paul Ranger (upper body) is getting better, but D Andrej Meszaros (arm) is still not close to returning. … Ryan Malone picked up his 200th career point.

Rookie Steven Stamkos remains in the Tampa Bay Lightning's lineup 02/14/09 [Last modified: Sunday, February 15, 2009 7:18am]

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