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Lightning line lights it up // Line comes together

One member of the new Lightning line "has been through the wars." The other two are "hungry first-round draft picks."

The union has been a rough one. Yes, rough.

If Jason Wiemer doesn't check an opponent hard, fighting for the puck, right behind him will be Chris Gratton waiting to get his licks. In the meantime, Brian Bellows is creating havoc in the slot, ready to score from his favorite spot.

"They like to hit everything that moves," Lightning coach Terry Crisp said.

At the defensive end, they're just as rugged.

"Even with two young players, I wouldn't hesitate to put them against the other team's top line," Crisp said. "That's what makes them a good line. They can check and they can give you some offense."

The trio has been together since Feb. 23, the day Petr Klima was knocked out in the first period against the Islanders with a separated shoulder.

"I had to juggle and look what we found," Crisp said. "A very, very good line. It's funny how things happen."

Call it the rugged line. Or call it the rejuvenated line.

At the start of the season, Wiemer was seeing most of the Lightning games from the press box as a healthy scratch. There were stretches this season when Gratton was struggling badly, his confidence fragile. Then there was Bellows, who was seeing plenty of action on the power play but not much at even strength.

"It reminds me of a situation I was in, in 1979 with the New York Rangers," Lightning general manager Phil Esposito said. "I wasn't playing very much the first half of the season. But then Don Maloney was called up from the minors and Don Murdoch was back from a suspension. I think Freddie Shero (general manager and coach) wanted to s--- on me and put me with the two kids. I remember we won that game 5-2 over the Bruins and our line had all five goals.

"The second half of the season I scored 39 goals and we went to the finals. Don Maloney and I led the team in scoring in the playoffs. Sometimes, s--- happens."

Esposito said his experience helped Maloney and Murdoch. And they helped him feel young again.

"But I was 38," Esposito said. "Brian's only 31, so maybe it's more the experience part. I think Brian Bellows has played terrific all year."

Bellows agreed. "I am only 31." And he thinks he has been playing well all season, but he concedes his intensity has picked up _ as do most veteran players' intensity during this time of the year when the playoffs are on the line.

Today's game against Washington at the ThunderDome is another key game for the Lightning, fifth in the Eastern Conference playoff race, a point ahead of the Capitals.

Bellows, who reached the 1,000-game milestone this season, said he thinks his experience has helped third-year Gratton and second-year Wiemer, who at times put too much pressure on themselves to perform well.

"I don't yell at them," he said. "If something goes wrong, we talk after the shift and try to correct it. I tell them everybody makes mistakes and not to dwell on them."

Bellows said he sees more intensity and physical play in Gratton. "He's creating more room for himself."

In Wiemer, Bellows sees a young Wendel Clark. "He plays a rugged, gritty, get-your-nose-dirty style of hockey. Defensemen don't want to go into the corners with him to get the puck. That's why we call him "Bear,' because he's a bear to play against."

Gratton said Bellows has had a "calming effect" on them. "Brian never gets too low or too high. He's played with a lot of great players and I'm sure he gets frustrated when we make mistakes sometimes. But he realizes we're young and trying."

In the six full games the trio has been together, they have combined for nine goals and seven assists. They also have been a combined plus 10 (they have been on the ice for a 10 more goals scored at even strength or short-handed than scored by the opposition). Before they were put together, the trio was a combined minus 43.

Crisp said Bellows has been a big reason.

"He's our safety net. You ask your best players to cover up," Crisp said. "And he's willing to be back there (third man high at the blue line) to bail us out."

That prevents odd-man rushes for the opposition.

"Everybody is doing whatever it takes to make the playoffs," said Bellows, who was an integral part of the Montreal Canadiens Stanley Cup championship team in 1993. "I'm enjoying playing with them. They have the hunger. Right now, we're playing pretty good together and it's been fun."