TAMPA — There will be a time, Steve Downie said, when he has to answer only hockey questions; when questions about his boiling emotions and suspensions that have come at every level from juniors to the NHL are gone.
There will be a time, Downie said, but he knows it is not now.
"I know it's going to take time, but I can't wait," the Lightning right wing said. "That said, it falls on me to do the right things and not cross that line."
He has put his toe on it a few times this season. Downie's 92 penalty minutes are second on the team, and several weeks ago, coach Rick Tocchet warned him to take it down a notch after a spate of games in which he was in the penalty box too much.
But with career highs of nine goals and 21 points, and at plus-6, Downie, 22, finally is showing the skills that made him the Flyers' 2005 first-round draft pick.
At 5 feet 11, 195 pounds, he is a puck hunter, a presence in front of the net and second on the team with five power-play goals.
His reward: a top-six spot on a line with center Vinny Lecavalier and Alex Tanguay.
"When the puck is up for grabs, he comes up with it," Tocchet said. "He's one of our best corner men along with Ryan Malone. That's the sort of stuff that wins playoff hockey."
So is the way he scored in a 4-2 weekend victory over the Devils — in front of the net, jostling with a defender and screening goalie Martin Brodeur before deflecting Kurtis Foster's shot from the blue line.
"That's the typical goal we need," Tocchet said. "He's in position, he pushes the (defender) and the puck is in the net. Those are things that are huge.
"I just want to get him to the point where he can play the last minute of a game and get that puck off the wall. If he can add that to his tool bag, he's going to be a complete hockey player."
Downie admits he must work on his defensive-zone coverage, key in tonight's game at the St. Pete Times Forum with the Capitals, who lead the NHL in goals.
Given his past, Downie must work carefully.
He was suspended by his junior team for instigating a fight with a teammate. The NHL suspended him 20 games in 2007 for a hit on Ottawa's Dean McAmmond. The AHL suspended him 20 games for slashing a linesman in a Feb. 28 game for Norfolk, though Downie said it was accidental in the course of play.
"I'm watched extra on the ice, I feel," said Downie, acquired from the Flyers in November 2008 in the Matt Carle deal. "I have to keep my emotions in check and not hurt the team. … But at the same time, I play my best hockey when I'm emotional and put everything on the line. It's a fine line I have to follow."
The closest he came to tripping over it came in six games during Dec. 5-15, when he had 28 penalty minutes.
"Stupid penalties," Downie said, "because I wasn't thinking."
He has just 12 penalty minutes in 11 games since. In his past eight games, he has three goals, eight points and is plus-4.
"It's a tough situation where you have to tell a guy, 'Yeah, play on the edge but be careful,' " Tocchet said. "He's getting better. Is he where I want him? No, but he has to learn that edge part."
"It's been a learning process for me," Downie said. "My game has developed so much, but I still think I have a lot more."
Ask him about it.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]