Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Kurtis Foster benefits from playing time at forward

TAMPA — For Lightning defenseman Kurtis Foster, the turning point of the season just might have come about a month ago with a turn at, of all places, forward.

"It just happened they needed a shift in Atlanta, and we scored the first shift," he said.

He scored his first goal with the Lightning in that 4-3 overtime win Nov. 22, and, if something works, you don't mess with it, right?

Lightning coach Rick Tocchet didn't. He left Foster in that role, where he hoped the 6-foot-5, 220-pounder could regain the pluck he had with the puck before missing much of last season recovering from a fractured left leg.

"That's a horrific injury he had to overcome," Tocchet said. "You can tell the last three weeks, he's become more confident. His five-on-five play is getting better, and that's the key to our team because he wasn't playing good five-on-five early in the year. You could tell he was a little nervous because of the leg."

Back in his normal position of late, Foster has turned into a different player. Actually, like the player of old.

Entering a critical Southeast Division showdown for the Lightning (13-15-9) against the Thrashers tonight at the St. Pete Times Forum, Foster, whose powerful shot has made him invaluable on the power play, has two goals and four assists in the past five games. His 12 points are tops among Lightning defensemen.

To him, the renaissance began with the shot to play up front.

"I think it brought a new aspect to my game," said Foster, who did play a bit at forward in a game late last season. "You realize what it's like for a forward when a puck's rimmed or a bad pass is made. It gave me a newfound respect for my wingers, and I've tried to make better plays for them when I can."

His increasing confidence has shown up in the linescore. When he gets the puck in the middle, he has been letting it fly, as you would expect from a player with a shot that has hit 101.5 mph.

Foster, 28, said he has learned the key is sacrificing some velocity for accuracy and making sure the shot is heading for the net. Even if it's saved, it might create a rebound opportunity.

Again, that's easier to do when you're feeling good about yourself, and you're earning ice time. But Foster, signed as a free agent in July, didn't start out well.

He injured a knee in the season-opener against Atlanta and missed the next four games. That was after playing just 10 games last season after his leg injury in March 2008. Learning a new system, adapting to new teammates and a bit of uncertainty is not the way to regain your form.

"When we put him up front, there was a stretch there when he actually got confident," Tocchet said. "He did a nice job. … I have no problem putting him up on the (right) wing, and he enjoys it."

"Whatever the coaches need, if they need me at forward, if they need me at D," said Foster, "I just want to be in the lineup."

Note: Center Jeff Halpern and left wing Todd Fedoruk, both of whom suffered lower-body injuries in the opening period of Wednesday's 5-2 loss to the Flyers, are day to day.

Ovechkin, Malkin lead Russian Olympic team

The Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin, the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin and the Thrashers' Ilya Kovalchuk are among the 14 NHL players on the 23-player Russia squad for the Vancouver Olympics, announced Friday.

Also selected were forwards Pavel Datsyuk of Detroit and Alexander Semin of Washington, defensemen Sergei Gonchar of Pittsburgh and Andrei Markov of Montreal, and goaltenders Evgeni Nabokov of San Jose and Ilya Bryzgalov of Phoenix.

The offensive firepower is impressive, but coach Vyacheslav Bykov said it will be important to be strong defensively as well in the February tournament.

"With the way ice hockey has evolved, it is essential to excel not only in offense but in defense as well," he told CTVOlympics.ca. "We're trying to find a certain balance between the two."

Final rosters are due Feb. 15.

Times wires contributed to this report.

tonight

Lightning vs. Thrashers

When/where: 7:30; St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa

TV/radio: Sun Sports; 620-AM

Key stats: Lightning coach Rick Tocchet said the two days off after Wednesday's loss to the Flyers probably will help, but "if we had won, I would have said I wish we were playing" sooner. … Former Lightning star D Pavel Kubina has four goals and 16 assists for the Thrashers and is a team-best plus-15. … This is the third of six meetings with Southeast rival Atlanta and the first at home. The Lightning is 1-1-0.

Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Kurtis Foster benefits from playing time at forward 12/25/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 26, 2009 12:20am]

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