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Center returns to previous form

Vinny Prospal celebrated the game-winner with the exuberance of a mite-leaguer.

The wrister that wriggled past Pittsburgh's Jean-Sebastien Aubin on Saturday at the Ice Palace gave the Lightning a 3-2 win, ended a six-game losing streak and was Prospal's first overtime goal.

In addition, his fifth goal in 16 games equaled his output for all of last season, a dreadful season in which he wallowed in Ottawa and Florida and lost the scoring touch that emerged in his previous two seasons.

Now in an organization that wants him _ holding him up as a standard for how Lightning forwards should approach the game _ Prospal, 26, believes he is back, happy, productive and needed.

And he was in a mood to celebrate.

"Awesome," Prospal said. "Goals are the biggest reward of your play. "And right now, compared to last year, I'm very happy so far."

Prospal enters tonight's game against Toronto second on the Lightning with five goals (two of them game-winners), one behind Martin St. Louis although Prospal has played nearly four minutes per game less.

Beyond statistics, he has epitomized the aggressive, pay-the-price style coach John Tortorella demands. That style prompted general manager Rick Dudley to trade for him in July, when his value was down.

Dudley, who was Prospal's general manager in Ottawa for his breakout 1998-99 season, said he knew what he was getting in the 6-foot-2, 195-pound center.

"He's an intense guy who possesses very, very good offensive tools, and he'll work and bang and bump," he said. "He's a guy who comes into every game and says, "I want to make a difference.'

"I'd like to have our 23-man roster filled with (players like him)."

Prospal scored 10 goals (36 points) in 1998-99 and improved to 22 (55 points) the next season.

Last year, however, he languished, managing a goal and 13 points in 40 games with the Senators. Alexei Yashin's return from a seasonlong holdout affected Prospal's ice time, and he said a slow start (he didn't score a goal until Dec. 16) and the resulting pressure sent his season into a tailspin.

"The newspapers in Ottawa kept mentioning how I wasn't scoring, and I just kept putting more and more pressure on myself," he said. "I never recovered from that.

"Probably if I started scoring, I would still be there. I don't blame anyone."

After parts of four seasons in Ottawa, Prospal requested a trade and was sent to Florida for a third-round pick on Jan. 21. Things went little better there. He scored four goals (16 points) in 34 games.

"I was very glad when that season ended," he said.

His mood improved when Dudley went shopping for bargains and acquired him from the Panthers in July for Ryan Johnson and a sixth-round pick in 2003.

"I know what his capacity is," Dudley said. "The fact is, the year before, he had 22 goals, and that's more in line with what he's capable of.

"He knows he's an important part of this team, and I think that makes him feel comfortable."

Prospal got comfortable quickly this season, scoring in the Lightning's fourth game, a 1-0 win at Los Angeles.

"Oh, huge. Huge," frequent linemate Ben Clymer said of scoring early in the season. "The first one is such a relief for a player, whether you're a goal-scorer or a defensive defenseman.

"It was big for him because he was able to build off it."

Clymer was on the ice with Prospal in the "top umbrella" set when he scored the game-winner on the power play against the Penguins.

"He made a good shot through traffic, and it had eyes for him. And it found the net," Clymer said.

"You could tell by his reaction he was pretty excited."

Just rewards, Prospal said.

"I went through a tough time and got something from that," he said. "They say something bad is always good for something.

"Right now, I'm on the other side, and I'm enjoying it a lot."