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A brick in the Wall

Sometimes, all it takes to get a slumping superstar out of a lingering funk is a few reassuring words.

And a big lead.

And a weak opponent.

Lightning goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, a tad leaky of late, enjoyed a lopsided 5-1 victory against the struggling Penguins before an announced 15,847 Thursday at the St. Pete Times Forum.

Circumstances aside, it felt pretty darned good, Khabibulin said.

And came pretty easy.

"Definitely, it feels pretty good," said Khabibulin, who faced just 14 shots. "We didn't play the best team in the league. But they have been able to beat some pretty good teams, and they work hard. I had to be ready to play."

The scoring spree that marked the Lightning's series with Pittsburgh this season continued as Tampa Bay swept an Eastern Conference opponent for the first time since going 5-0 against the Rangers in 1996-97. In four games, the Lightning outscored the Penguins 23-4 and outshot them 144-64.

The hot stayed hot.

Tampa Bay, which won its fourth in a row, got goals from Brad Richards, Pavel Kubina, Vinny Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Brad Lukowich. Ruslan Fedotenko had three assists.

The victory marked the 100th for coach John Tortorella.

The Lightning also got a charge from the arrival of Darryl Sydor, the top-four defenseman it has sought for much of the past two seasons.

Sydor, acquired Tuesday from Columbus, started and skated regular shifts with Kubina. His debut was tainted by a slashing penalty during his first shift, 33 seconds into the game.

"Starting lineup, butterflies, the puck comes right to you off the faceoff. You get right into it, and then a penalty," said Sydor, who had an assist in 19:04 of ice time. "It was good to see the guys kill that one off."

The Penguins, last in the East, lost their eighth in a row on a day when players learned the franchise will send promising 19-year-old goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, a rare bright spot, to juniors today.

Jean-Sebastien Aubin was in goal but was no match for the Lightning. Richards opened the scoring 4:44 in, and Tampa Bay led 3-0 at the end of the first.

Meanwhile, the Lightning is doing all it can to revive Khabibulin.

Wednesday, general manager Jay Feaster said he has no intention of trading Khabibulin and expects to pick up his $6.5-million option for next season.

Thursday afternoon, Tortorella said he considers Khabibulin the team's No. 1 goalie despite the solid play of backup John Grahame, who he said is learning to be a No. 1 goalie. Grahame was in goal for seven of the Lightning's previous eight victories.

The Penguins presented a chance for Khabibulin, who had allowed 19 goals in his past four starts, to get back on the ice and try to build confidence.

"With Nik, at times in the third period, we almost wished he'd get a few shots. But you don't want to play the game that way," Tortorella said. "Nik has to be a huge piece of the puzzle for us as we go through this stretch. It was good for Nik to get back in there and get some time."

Khabibulin made two solid saves during the first period, stopping a hard shot by Dan Focht and a short-handed breakaway by Matt Bradley. Pittsburgh's goal came on a breakaway by Ryan Malone late in the second to make it 5-1.

"I always like to see a little more work than I had (Thursday), but I can't really control that," said Khabibulin, who won for the first time since 5-4 against Carolina on Jan. 15. "I think I felt pretty good. As the game went on, I felt better. Toward the end of the first period, I started to feel kind of normal."

Maybe that's all it takes.

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