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Downfall got big lift from Leafs

Blame it all on the Maple Leafs.

The Lightning's six-week tailspin officially started with a loss at Philadelphia on Dec. 18. That began a span of 19 games with only one victory.

But the game that accelerated the mess, according to coach Steve Ludzik, was a 4-2 loss to the Maple Leafs on Dec. 21.

"That's the game that I look back as the one that really took the wind out of our sails," Ludzik said. "We were playing pretty well up to that point, and we played really well in that game. It was a game we deserved to win and we lost it and it really hurt us."

The score was tied late in the third period when former Lightning defenseman Cory Cross scored on a slap shot. The Leafs added an empty-net goal in the final minute. That started a five-game losing streak, including a loss to Atlanta and two to Florida, highlighted by a 6-1 game on Dec. 27 that may have been Tampa Bay's worst of the season.

"I don't know what happens if we win that game; I'm not saying that changes everything," Ludzik said. "But we really seemed to go downhill after that. It was a back-breaker.'

TIME CHANGE: The starting time for the home game on Feb. 21 against Pittsburgh has been changed from 5 p.m. to 7:30.

BEST IN THE BUSINESS: It's a great time for great NHL goaltenders. There's the eerily-consistent Martin Brodeur in New Jersey. Olaf Kolzig is having a huge comeback season with the Caps. Colorado's Patrick Roy still is among the elite. And Buffalo's Dominik Hasek is considered by some to be the best in history.

But Ludzik's choice as the best is Toronto's Curtis Joseph. "He knows how to win games," Ludzik said. "You might get some goals on him, but when the game is on the line, he makes the big saves over and over again. For my money, he is the best in the business."

ODDS AND ENDS: Forward Dan Kesa, who missed the past two games with a groin injury, probably could've played but he was given another game to rest. Defenseman Chris McAlpine still is a little woozy following a concussion sustained Saturday and he sat, too. Forward Steve Guolla was a healthy scratch. Forward Mike Sillinger played in his 500th NHL game and scored his 16th goal of the season in the first period. His career high is 21, set in 1997-98 with Vancouver and Philadelphia.

_ TOM JONES

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