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Lightning debuts on ESPN tonight

ESPN hockey analyst Jim Schoenfeld said his network is catching the Tampa Bay Lightning at the right time.

Tampa Bay makes its national television debut at 8 tonight against the Buffalo Sabres.

"The story so far is that Tampa Bay has gotten off to a great start," said Schoenfeld, who spent 16 seasons in the NHL as a player and coach. "They're an expansion team, but they don't play like one. They are making believers out of a lot of people."

Schoenfeld already is sold on Lightning left wing Chris Kontos, who scored six goals in his first three games.

"Chris Kontos is a story all by himself," Schoenfeld said. "He's been in and out of the league, and now he has a chance to be a cornerstone type of player on a young team. That's a good story for us. Those are the kind of things we're going to talk about."

Schoenfeld and broadcast partner Gary Thorne have a different kind of game to work with tonight. ESPN's first two games involved Philadelphia Flyers rookie Eric Lindros, who is the talk of the league. In the season opener, Lindros' Flyers played the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins to a 3-3 tie.

"Each game brings its own special nuances," Schoenfeld said. "We've had two good games, two exciting games. If it's a great game, there's very little we can do to mess that up. If it's a terrible game, there's very little we can do to make it spectacular.

"You can only have one team that is the Stanley Cup champion. You can only have one Eric Lindros. We have a lot of different games. Sometimes the game provides a totally different story. And we think the Tampa Bay Lightning is a good story."

McDonough learning the ropes: First-year CBS baseball announcer Sean McDonough said he thought better of talking during the Atlanta Braves' victory celebration Wednesday night.

"It was such a great moment, I didn't want to say anything stupid and mess things up," said McDonough, who will broadcast the World Series starting Saturday night with Tim McCarver.

McDonough watched reporter Jim Gray's interview with Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland following the emotional loss.

"I'm glad they did not come directly to me from Jim Gray because I thought I was going to cry," McDonough said Thursday morning. "Jim Leyland is as good a man as there is in the game. To see him go through this for the third year in a row was painful. My heart ached for him and still does."

Hoopin' with Mr. Cooper: Mark Curry, the 6-foot-6 star of ABC's Hangin' with Mr. Cooper, will play in an NBA exhibition game between Golden State and Phoenix on Oct. 21 as part of a two-part episode to be broadcast in November.

"I feel like George Plimpton here," said Curry, an Oakland native who played college basketball at Cal State-Hayward.

"Maybe if I really play well they'll sign me to a real contract. I grew up idolizing Nate Thurmond, Rick Barry and Gus Williams, and to put on the same jersey those guys wore is truly a thrill."

Shaq Attack: The Orlando Magic ushers in the Shaquille O'Neal era at 7:30 tonight against the Miami Heat on WTMV-Ch. 32. The game marks the pro debut of O'Neal, the No. 1 selection in this year's NBA draft. Ch.

32 will televise 25 Magic regular-season road games this year.

Still no news: As of Thursday, Paragon Cable and Sunshine Network still had not reached a contract agreement to televise Tampa Bay Lightning games this season. The team's next scheduled broadcast on Sunshine Network is Oct. 30 against the San Jose Sharks.

Up next:TODAY'S QUIZ

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