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In his sights

It is difficult to determine exactly when the light came on for Pavel Kubina; when the Lightning defenseman really started believing he could become the player everyone expected.

Maybe it was during last season's playoffs, when Kubina had "the best time of my life" making big contributions in front of roaring crowds.

Maybe it was during the East semifinals when he played Washington's Jaromir Jagr to a standstill and, during the Game 6 clincher, bent over to get in the fallen superstar's face.

Or maybe, just maybe, it happened over the summer, when Kubina had time to decide whether that effort would define his career or be a platform to something better.

"I learned a little bit different hockey," Kubina said Monday. "I learned I can play in the playoffs. Now I know what they expect out of me."

Kubina, 26, has picked up where he left off.

His three goals equal last season's total. He has five points, is plus-3 and his 20:36 average ice time is second on the team among defensemen. Extra credit comes from being light years ahead of last season when it comes to defensive positioning.

Kubina fell into a bad habit of sprawling on the ice near his net while trying to break up opponent rushes. That does create a barrier, but if the puck gets past him he is hopelessly out of the play. The dive has been noticeably absent.

Kubina is taking hits to make plays. And his shot is getting to the net, something that abandoned him last season when he scored fewer goals than in any season except 1997-98, when he had one in 10 games.

Kubina needs more than a little refining. His backward skating could be smoother and he should be more physical. But there is no doubt he is beginning to tap the potential his newly muscular 6-foot-4, 230-pound body holds.

"I've grown up a little bit," Kubina said. "I'm older and I've played (382) games. That's how you get experience. I feel better on the ice."

As good as Kubina feels now, that is how bad he felt last season. He was terribly inconsistent, endured occasional scratches because of poor play and was booed by the home fans.

Then there was the pressure of the two-year, $4.75-million deal he signed in the summer of 2002.

"I didn't know how to handle it," Kubina said. "I was trying too hard. That's why I was in trouble last season, for sure. I learned from that you can't go on the ice thinking you have to stop their first line or you have to score a goal. If you think that way, it's never going to happen. You have to be loose out there."

In that sense, facing Jagr in the playoffs was the best thing that could have happened. He and Kubina are friends from the Czech Republic, which creates a comfort zone in which Kubina can play his game.

"I like to play against him," Kubina said. "It's a great challenge for me."

Kubina's assignment, with teammate Jassen Cullimore, was to make Jagr's life miserable. They succeeded, holding Jagr to zero goals and three assists in the series' final four games.

"I didn't know how good a hockey player he was," Capitals coach Bruce Cassidy said of Kubina. "I knew he was a big guy and could certainly get in the way, and he has decent feet. But to be able to battle for six games straight for every minute, it's a credit to him because Jags is a handful.

"It was good for his confidence and their whole defensive corps."

Kubina likely will get that same assignment tonight against Washington at the St. Pete Times Forum as Tampa Bay tries to extend its season-opening, eight-game unbeaten streak (7-0-1).

John Tortorella wants Kubina to put that energy and focus into every game.

"It shouldn't have to be an assignment on one player. It should be an assignment of every game," the coach said.

"That's what we hope his thinking changes to. Not an assignment on Jagr or that guy or that guy, but it's another game in which you need to be focused. That's your assignment."

And Kubina's opportunity.