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Lightning wants defenseman to regain focus

Paul Ranger has just about every tool necessary to be an NHL star.

The Lightning defenseman has a booming shot, is smart, athletic, can skate and at 6 feet 2, 215 pounds has a body primed to pack on more muscle and bulk.

"I think he has a terribly bright future,'' coach John Tortorella said. "I don't want to see him (mess) it up.''

We're a long way from that.

Ranger, 22 and in his second season, has an outstanding rookie effort to his credit. Still, you can't blame Tortorella for sounding an alarm.

Ranger admitted he isn't playing as expected. He is minus-5 for the season but minus-6 in his past four games and has just two of his 11 assists in his past 11 games.

Hey, all players have ups and downs. But about being benched Saturday for the final two periods after bad plays led to two Senators goals, Ranger said, "I don't think I was ready to play the way I should be. That's for sure. It boggles your mind that you're not quite fully focused.''

Credit Ranger for not making excuses. But the honesty rekindled old concerns that followed the Whitby, Ontario, native out of the minors - that inconsistent focus led to inconsistent play.

Ranger squashed those concerns last season. Called up in October from AHL Springfield, he had a goal and 17 assists in 76 games and was plus-5. Tortorella called him one of the game's best passers, especially when making the first pass in the defensive zone.

He had two goals and four assists in five playoff games against the Senators. He seemed on the fast track to join the league's elite.

That is why Tortorella bristled when Ranger said his preparation had wavered.

"All young players at that position are going to have their struggles. That's the toughest position to play,'' Tortorella said.

"But when it comes to preparation, there can't be any type of dip there. I don't care if you're 18 in this league. That's something you can control. That's something very important for Paul Ranger to get straightened out.''

"It's just a matter of figuring out what's causing it,'' Ranger said. "One thing I'm starting to realize, if there is anything bothering you, whatever it may be, when it comes to game time, you have to free your mind and think of nothing else. The game is played best when you're playing on instincts.''

Dan Boyle, Ranger's defensive partner for most of his two seasons, said he saw those instincts in the third period Tuesday against the Sabres.

"When you're young like that, confidence is going to be up and down,'' Boyle said.

"To me, all it takes is one play and you do something good, a good bounce.''

Perhaps tonight against the Southeast-leading Thrashers at the St. Pete Times Forum.

"However he prepares himself, he can be as good as he wants to be,'' Tortorella said.

"It's here,'' he added, pointing to his head. "Players become great when this is strong. That has to be a constant for Paul Ranger.''

Consider it another tool on his belt.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8622.

TONIGHT

Lightning vs. Thrashers

When/where: 7:30; St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa. TV/radio: Sun Sports; 620-AM.

What to watch for: Atlanta's Marian Hossa leads the league with 21 goals, 41 points and 21 power-play points. ... Goalie Kari Lehtonen is tied for first with four shutouts. ... Atlanta is 6-0-1 in its past seven. Tampa Bay is 0-3-1 in its past four. ... Tampa Bay goalie Marc Denis is 0-5-2 in his past seven decisions. ... The Lightning is 0-for-23 on the power play in its past four games; the Thrashers are 6-for-25 in their past three. ... Tampa Bay leads the season series 3-1.

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