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Clark's first goal: winning games

Scoring goals is fun.

Winning is more fun.

Just ask Wendel Clark.

The 32-year-old Lightning left wing, who got his first hat trick in more than two seasons Wednesday night, is on pace for a 40-goal season.

But his 9-24-3 team is on pace for a 55-loss season and another last-place finish.

"It's a fine line," Clark said, "between winning and losing. The encouraging thing is we're staying close in these games."

True, Tampa Bay has fallen by two goals or fewer in eight of its last nine losses _ and won or tied three of its last nine games. If it weren't for Clark, though, that dubious record of late would even more dreadful.

The ex-Leafs captain who signed with Tampa Bay in the off-season because Toronto did not want him to stay has five goals in his past seven games, including two on the power play against Carolina Wednesday.

Clark has 18 goals _ twice as many as the next-closest Lightning, Darcy Tucker_ and he has assumed the team scoring lead with seven assists for 25 points.

"He's our All-Star," said Lightning captain Rob Zamuner, who is almost certainly correct in his subjective assessment that Clark will represent the Lightning when Tampa Bay plays host to the Jan. 24 NHL All-Star Game. "He's putting the puck in the net for us, and giving us a chance to win."

He has done it despite a groin strain that has caused him to miss four games, though that pales compared with the assortment of broken bones, torn ligaments and bad-back woes he has endured during an injury-plagued career.

All this from a man who managed only 12 goals and seven assists in 47 games during an injury-shortened 1997-98 season in Toronto, where Clark played 11-plus of his 14 NHL seasons.

"I don't look at it as any sort of vindication," Clark said. "I just try to keep having fun playing hockey, and that's what I'm doing."

It's too bad for the Lightning, coach Jacques Demers said, that more Tampa Bay scorers aren't following his lead.

Clark, though, is confident they soon will.

"If we're getting chances some way or another," he said, "the goals will start."

And Clark, the Lightning can only hope, won't stop.

NOTES: D Cory Cross had a charley horse Wednesday and is listed day-to-day, but Demers said Thursday there are no plans to call up a sixth defenseman from IHL farm team Cleveland. G Daren Puppa may be assigned to Cleveland for a short conditioning stint after he finishes rehabbing his strained groin in Colorado. G Bill Ranford, who apparently re-injured his already strained groin against Carolina, should be ready to play when Tampa Bay plays at Toronto on Monday. "I'm all right," Ranford said. "I'll live." The Lightning did not practice Thursday and won't practice today. This marks just the third time in Tampa Bay's seven seasons that it had no New Year's Eve game. The others were 1993-94 and '94-95 (no games were played because of the lockout).