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DISCIPLINE IS PAYING OFF FOR DOWNIE

The Lightning wing, in better shape and mind-set, gets an early training camp reward.

It is impossible at this stage of training camp to tell where Steve Downie fits.

So, until it shakes out, the Lightning right wing figures he might as well enjoy the ride.

Heck, he's already scrimmaged on a line with center Vinny Lecavalier and Alex Tanguay, and coach Rick Tocchet said Downie might get a chance to play with them in a game if he does well in tonight's preseason opener against the Stars at American Airlines Center.

"It was a lot of fun playing with them," Downie said. "It's a great opportunity regardless of whether I end up with them or not. Lines change numerous times during the year; that's why I'm not looking too much into it."

What deserves a look is how Downie - disciplined several times for on-ice issues and who admits his former conditioning program was inadequate - showed the Lightning he deserved the chance to earn more responsibility.

Truth be told, his turn on such a premier line was as much a reward for what general manager Brian Lawton described as bringing "some discipline to his overall life" as a recognition of his skill set. Lawton was talking about a commitment to better workout and nutritional habits. But Downie, 22, said he also committed to "not hurting the team in certain situations."

He has a history.

In 2005 with OHL Windsor, Downie was suspended for five games for instigating a fight with a teammate. In a 2007 preseason game with the Flyers, he was suspended for 20 games by the NHL for delivering a head shot to Ottawa's Dean McAmmond.

Last season, with AHL Norfolk, his from-behind hit on Kyle McLaren earned him a three-game league suspension. And he was suspended for 20 games in March, accused of striking an official on the shin with his stick during a faceoff at the end of a heated game with Hershey.

Lawton disputes the investigation's findings in the last case and does not agree with the punishment, which does not carry over to the NHL.

"I would not stand up for a player if I didn't see it that way," he said. "What actually happened, I think, was overblown. I think that centered around his reputation, and I thought the suspension was very severe. We support the process ... but in his case, from our view, it has no bearing on what we think of him."

Downie said he appreciates that the Lightning has his back:

"A lot of people could have turned away. They stuck behind me and saw it for what it was."

And though Downie said he has moved on, he knows his reputation will follow. So he will be as careful as he can.

"The game is so fast, you really don't have time to think about 'I'm not going to do this. I'm going to do this,'" Downie said. "I play on the edge, and I play with a lot of emotion. But as you get older, you learn to control your emotions in certain situations."

He also learned to understand his body. Downie said he played last season at 202 pounds, "and I don't think there was much definition or muscle there."

A summer conditioning program with strength coach Chuck Lobe changed that, and at 5 feet 11, 193 pounds, Downie's chest now pushes against his shirts.

"He knows nothing is given. I think he fits a role on this team if he's consistent," Tocchet said. "He's an A, B player. He's got good hands. He goes to the net."

"He's good," Tanguay said. "He can skate, and he's got poise with the puck in the corner."

The team wants to see all that tonight before perhaps putting Downie with Lecavalier and Tanguay during Friday's home game against the Thrashers.

"My goal was to be in the best physical shape and the best possible situation for me. I've done that," Downie said. "I'm just going to let things take care of itself. It's not my job to worry about where I'm going to play or what my role is going to be. I'm just here to work on my game and get better. I end up where I end up."

He already is in a better place.

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