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Lightning "heart and soul' back

Daren Puppa tests his healing hip/groin in a nearly two-hour workout.

Ed Pershin picked up a rebound in front of goaltender Daren Puppa and tried to push the puck between his legs. Puppa dropped to his knees to make the save.

Kaspars Astashenko picked up a puck to Puppa's left and shot for the low corner. Puppa flicked out his left leg for another save.

The action was worth noting Thursday as Puppa tested the left groin/hip capsule injury that has kept him out of action since Nov. 21.

Puppa practiced almost two hours with 15 other Lightning players who showed up at the Ice Sports Forum for the start of 18 days of voluntary workouts.

Puppa left the rink without answering questions, so it was up to others to critique the first steps of the 34-year-old's hoped-for comeback.

"Obviously he didn't have a lot of work," said Rick Dudley, the Lightning's vice president of hockey operations and general manager. "But he had two hours on the ice without anything bothering him. I asked him about it. He said he felt good."

"This was strictly an option. I was surprised he was coming out," coach Steve Ludzik said. "He's as competitive as anybody you can find."

During warmups, as his teammates charged up and down the ice, Puppa skated slowly. As his teammates sharply changed direction, ice spraying around them, Puppa made wide, unhurried turns.

When shots began flying, Puppa stayed close to the net and smoothly slid side-to-side as the action dictated. He dropped to his knees occasionally. The save with the left leg was his best.

Still, fellow goaltender Kevin Hodson was much more animated, crouching low, challenging shooters and going to the ice.

But Puppa had said not to expect acrobatics. Thursday was only a trial to see how his injury had responded since being diagnosed properly in June.

"I think, silently, everybody took notice," defenseman Paul Mara said. "Poops is a silent leader. He's the heart and soul of this team. It can only help the younger guys to see a veteran come out and watch what he is doing."

PICKING UP THE PACE: Mara said last season's voluntary workouts consisted of players getting together for pickup games. Thursday's workout had all the feel of a training camp.

Under the direction of Grant Sonier, general manager of the IHL's Detroit Vipers, players worked two-on-two drills and odd-man rushes and practiced stick-handling.

There was also a drill in which players skated backward and made tight turns on one foot. More than one player hit the ice trying it.

Mara liked the change.

"Definitely," he said. "If you have a hard practice, you jump into it quickly. If it's easy, you're lackadaisical a couple of days before you get into it."

"I wish I had that when I was playing," Dudley said. "This is something we offer the players to make them better. Athletes should want to get better. There's a lot of money involved."

TURN BACK THE CLOCK: Bill Houlder said he remembers Puppa being "awesome" during the Lightning's playoff season of 1995-96. But the defenseman said it might be too much to expect the goaltender to regain that form, considering he has played just 45 games the past three seasons.

"I don't think anybody should have unrealistic goals that he will come in and be as good as he was, at least right away," said Houlder, who played for Tampa Bay from 1995-97 and was reacquired from the Sharks on Wednesday. "But maybe he can be that great again."

Houlder said the Lightning was "headed in the right direction" when it made the playoffs. But by the end of the 1996-97 season the team was for sale and the owners were more interested in "selling assets rather than keeping players."

Houlder went to the Sharks as a free agent in July 1997. Left wing Shawn Burr, who also was reacquired Wednesday, was traded to the Sharks that month.

"It's nice to know, with the new management, that won't be the case," Houlder said.

DRAFT PICK SIGNS: Astashenko, 24, the Lightning's fifth-round selection (127th overall) in the entry draft, signed a one-year contract. Terms were not disclosed.

In 74 games last season with the IHL's Cincinnati Cyclones, the 6-foot-2, 190-pounder scored three goals with 11 assists and 166 penalty minutes.

"Kaspars is a pugnacious defenseman with a lot of skill," Dudley said in a release. "He has the type of attitude and approach to the game we want."

Astashenko, a native of Riga, Latvia, played from 1993-98 in the Russian Elite League.

NEW ANNOUNCER: The Lightning announced the hiring of Rich Hollenberg as the team's P.A. announcer. Hollenberg, 28, has been a part-time announcer the past two seasons and hosted Tampa Bay Lightning Weekly during the 1997-98 season.

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Goaltender Daren Puppa wouldn't talk after the workout, but GM Rick Dudley did: "He said he felt good."