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Lecavalier to get tough love

In his strongest statements regarding captain Vinny Lecavalier's struggles this season, Lightning coach John Tortorella said Thursday he is taking a more critical approach to help the 20-year-old center break out.

"He's never gone through something like this before," Tortorella said. "He's been the best player on his team all the time and has been given this, given that, "Yes, Vinny you're doing great.' No, he isn't great right now. Let's face it. It's our job to help him."

Lecavalier had no goals and just one assist in his past five games and had the third-worst plus-minus rating in the league (minus-24) entering Thursday's game against Toronto.

"It's never a personal thing with me," Tortorella said. "I like the kid. He's a great kid. But it's not a situation that we are going to stop coaching him to win a popularity contest around here. It's not going to happen that way. That would be totally unfair to a kid that has his whole career ahead of him."

Lecavalier's third NHL season has been rife with disappointment.

He has endured a midseason coaching change, missed 14 games with a broken foot, was benched for a period last month and has seen his playing time drop off considerably.

He played 11 minutes, 38 seconds against Edmonton on Tuesday.

"He (Tortorella) wants me to play better defensively," said Lecavalier, who was third on the team with 43 points. "He just wants me to be more of a complete player. I think that's good that he does that. Obviously, it's going to help my game."

That's the desired result, Tortorella said.

"It's going to be a situation, we hope, in a number of years from now when we're out of here and he's playing at a top level and says, "You know, a couple of those points you made to me, you were right,' " Tortorella said. "That's what we hope."

ON THE VERGE: Rookie scoring leader Brad Richards gained a hefty performance-based bonus Thursday night when he assisted on the Lightning's second goal.

The center's contract included a $250,000 bonus if he scored 20 goals or had 35 assists this season. Richards had 19 goals and 34 assists going into the game.

POWER PLAY: It isn't coincidence the Lightning's power play came alive in its two previous games.

Tampa Bay was 0-for-22 before Richards was moved to the right point against Columbus on Saturday. It had gone 5-for-its-past-12 before Thursday.

"With him now playing the point on the power play, it adds that much patience as far as passing the puck as well as shooting the puck," center Brian Holzinger said.

SOME HISTORY: Left wing Fredrik Modin's team-leading 29th goal gave the Lightning at least two 50-point scorers for the first time since 1996-97, when Chris Gratton (62), Dino Ciccarelli (60), John Cullen (55) and Rob Zamuner (50) reached that level. Richards leads the Lightning with 54 points. Modin has 50.

ODDS AND ENDS: Center John Emmons played in his first game since being traded from Ottawa to Tampa Bay on Tuesday. Pavel Kubina returned after missing eight games with a dislocated right kneecap. Right wing Alexander Kharitonov and defenseman Kristian Kudroc were healthy scratches.

_ KEVIN KELLY

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