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Demers knows truth: .500 better than 400

Jacques Demers is on the verge of something only 10 other NHL coaches have done: win 400 games.

But he's also on the verge of something no other NHL coach has done.

"It's not easy to win 400 games yet be below .500," Demers said.

Demers needs one win for 400. He'll thank the Lightning for getting No. 400, but he can blame the team for the dubious distinction of being below .500.

When he took over on Nov. 12, 1997, Demers had a career record of 375-372-113 coaching Quebec, St. Louis, Detroit and Montreal. But a 15-40-8 record with Tampa Bay last season, and a 9-24-3 record this season has Demers 52 games under .500 for his career.

"Finishing my career over .500 is the one thing I'd really like to do," Demers said. "That was one of the bad things about last season, that I fell below .500. The only thing I really wanted to do was coach 1,000 games and finish over .500. Most of all, though, I want to win just to turn this thing around. And I would like to win Monday because we need a damn win, not because it would be my 400th victory."

Assuming he finishes the season as Lightning coach, Demers will reach 1,000 games in April. But unless the Lightning shatters a pro sports record with a 50-some game winning streak, Demers will not climb above .500 this season.

But four more victories will allow Demers to pass legendary Toronto coach Punch Imlach for 10th place on the all-time list. And he would become the first French-Canadian to win 400 games.

"I don't remember any specific games," Demers said. "I don't even remember the first one. I think we beat Montreal, but that's all I can remember. I remember winning the Cup and I could give you details of that, but not of regular-season games.

"But I'm proud of the players who played for me. I never shot a puck or made a pass, so any win I get in this league is because of the players who worked their (fannies) off for me."

HOBBLED: Add two more to the long list of injured players this season. Darcy Tucker (broken toe, left foot) and Benoit Hogue (strained ligaments, right knee) missed Saturday's practice.

Both will make the four-game road trip that begins Monday in Toronto, but they may not play.Defenseman Cory Cross remains questionable with a charley horse in his right leg.

EXTRA HELP: The Lightning is sending two representatives from the media relations department on the road trip because two players will be in demand.

Wendel Clark returns to Toronto for the first time this season. Clark, who spent 12 seasons playing for Toronto, leads the Lightning with 18 goals and figures to be swarmed by the media, especially because the famed Maple Leaf Gardens will be closing later this month.

Meantime, interview requests are pouring in for rookie Vincent Lecavalier, who makes his Montreal debut on Thursday. Lecavalier, from nearby Ile Bizard, Quebec, expects more than 500 people from his hometown to attend Thursday's game.

ODDS AND ENDS: The Lightning returned to practice Saturday after taking two days off. The team worked mostly on power-play and conditioning drills. Goalie Daren Puppa is expected to return to Tampa today from Colorado, where he was seeing a specialist for his injured groin. He will continue skating and rehabilitating, but won't be on the road trip. Demers might send Puppa to minor-league Cleveland for a conditioning stint.

_ TOM JONES

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