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Keefe works way back up

Published Sep. 2, 2005

Shut up and play.

Sheldon Keefe probably didn't use those exact words when, over the summer, he contemplated his future with the Lightning. But that was pretty much what he had to do.

The right wing knew, after last season's episode in which he was suspended by the team for refusing a minor-league assignment, he was in for some fence mending. And it was not going to be done with talk, but with actions.

"I was just going to play my game," Keefe said, "and let it do the talking for me."

The result is one of the more gratifying success stories in a Lightning season that has seen quite a few. The tale is not nearly complete. But it is clear Keefe, 21, has a better sense of how to craft a happy ending.

Keefe has five goals, six assists in 26 games since being called up from AHL Springfield on Dec. 9. In the 12 games since he missed 14 with a sprained right knee, Keefe has four goals, four assists. He has three goals, one assist in his past four games.

"Last year was tough," Keefe said Saturday. "I wasn't playing that much and it's tough to feel like you're involved. Now I feel part of it. It makes me feel like I can contribute at this level. I always knew I could and that I belong here."

Keefe believed he belonged last season and should have gotten more playing time after the team fell out of the playoff race. Then-general manager Rick Dudley thought Keefe, who had four goals in a limited role in 49 games, would be better off playing regularly in the minors.

Keefe thought the Lightning wasn't giving him a chance to develop and prove himself and refused the assignment. The suspension followed.

"There was a lot of mixed messages going on and miscommunication," he said.

Keefe and Dudley cleared the air over the summer. But Dudley also assigned Keefe to minor-league training camp to start the season.

"No one has ever been a bigger fan of Sheldon than I," said Dudley, who made Keefe his first draft pick (second round, 47th overall) as Lightning general manager in 1999. "He has an unmatched passion for the game and is very focused as to what he wants to accomplish. I didn't have any doubt that was just a bump in the road, that he would regroup. We just thought we could expedite matters a little bit by sending a bit of a message."

That message continued when Keefe was assigned to Springfield. Keefe was mad, but did not complain.

Shut up and play.

"I knew my time would come," he said. "I used the time to work on my game and get better."

He had nine goals, nine assists in 24 games before getting the call.

"No matter what they did to him, he continued to work hard, and it paid off," forward Dave Andreychuk said. "He came to camp and hasn't said much and has done his job, and that's what everybody looked at. He realized the kind of player he can be and will be. He's done everything he can to stay here."

Keefe, at 5 feet 11, 185 pounds, forechecks, agitates, hits and goes to the net _ things the entire team must do to contend with the Bruins tonight at the Ice Palace.

The latter trait paid off for Keefe in tying goals last week against the Sabres and Flyers. His willingness to get his nose dirty created a monster goal Friday in Tampa Bay's tie at 3 with the Canadiens.

Keefe did not score or get an assist, but he cut off the puck along the boards in the Montreal zone and took a hit while starting a sequence that ended with Nikita Alexeev's goal and a 3-2 Tampa Bay lead.

"All effort," coach John Tortorella said.

"Maybe I was branded a little bit that I'm not a team player," Keefe said. "But anybody who gets to know me knows I'm actually the opposite. I'm a player that will do anything for the team and will do anything to win hockey games."