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Michael Farber
May 10, 2004
Maddeningly inconsistent in the past, Vincent Lecavalier was brilliant in leading Tampa Bay into the conference finals
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May 10, 2004

A Star At Last?

Maddeningly inconsistent in the past, Vincent Lecavalier was brilliant in leading Tampa Bay into the conference finals

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Vincent Lecavalier owns a swank, 1,700-square-foot town house in Tampa's Harbour Island, which is not to be confused with the cozy time-share he has at Le Chateau Bow Wow, the doghouse run by Tampa Bay Lightning coach John Tortorella. Lecavalier has vacationed there periodically during Tortorella's three-plus years (well-deserved stays, incidentally), although the 24-year-old center with matinee looks and prime-time skill might have extricated himself for good last week by personally wrecking the Montreal Canadiens in a second-round playoff series. An elegant skater whose play on the periphery too often has resembled a Gallic shrug, Lecavalier displayed a visceral commitment as he scored five goals and added two assists while barging into traffic and the headlines.

As Tampa Bay advanced to the Eastern Conference finals with its offense, defense and goaltending all in impressive form, the Lightning's top dog was having his day.

There is a litany of reasons why players end up in the Red Woof Inns that dot hockey's landscape, and Jacques Demers, Lecavalier's first NHL coach, enumerates many: not playing the system, prolonging shifts, lollygagging, making poor decisions with the puck, taking dumb penalties, not doing enough. Calgary Flames center Craig Conroy, who was in coach Darryl Sutter's doghouse early in the season, offers an addendum: trying to do too much. "For me, that's taking chances offensively" Conroy says. "The coach sees you leaving the zone early or cheating, trying to make plays that aren't there...well, you think you're doing it for the betterment of the team, but when you watch the tape and Darryl talks about it in the newspapers, you understand." Conroy has hounded the opposition throughout Calgary's surprising playoff run, reinforcing his worth with relentless checking and the lone goal in last Saturday's 1-0 win over the Detroit Red Wings, which gave the voracious Flames a three-games-to-two lead in their West semifinal series.

This has been the postseason in which kennel-club members have made it back into their teams' good graces: Colorado Avalanche wing Teemu Selanne, the erstwhile Finnish Flash, who looked reborn against the San Jose Sharks after being a healthy scratch in Game 2; Detroit goalie Curtis Joseph, who was sent to the minors earlier this year but who, heading into Game 6 in Calgary, had been steadfast since becoming the Wings' starter midway through the first round; and Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov (below), who has shaken off a late-season slump to anchor San Jose.

For big-ticket forwards, sometimes the only redemption is a scoring binge, like the six goals in two playoff series that absolved Montreal right wing Alexei Kovalev. A doghouse denizen for much of his 12-year career, Kovalev had been chastised for a first-round gaffe in which he gave up on the puck after being slashed on the hand (leading to a Boston Bruins goal in overtime). Kovalev was the most dangerous Canadien against the overpowering Lightning. "It's easy to see why coaches would be so mad at him because you see how good he is when he plays well," Montreal defenseman Sheldon Souray said. "You want that all the time."

Tampa Bay wants such consistency from Lecavalier. At 6'4" and 215 pounds, he has the tantalizing gifts that led former owner Art Williams to gush that Lecavalier would be "the Michael Jordan of hockey" after the Lightning drafted him first overall in 1998. The closest connection is that MJ has been immortalized in the form of a statue, while Lecavalier sometimes looks like one when he glides into the attacking zone instead of churning his legs. But with 16 seconds of marvelous play in the second period of a scoreless Game 1 against Montreal, Lecavalier changed a game and a perception.

Lecavalier, who had gone pointless in a five-game first-round series against the New York Islanders, worked the puck along the right boards to behind the Montreal net, battling Canadiens Francis Bouillon and Mike Ribeiro most of the way. Eventually the puck squirted free. Ribeiro began lugging it back up the wall, but Lecavalier, near the end of a shift, stayed with the play, backchecking the Canadiens center. Using his superior reach and competitiveness, Lecavalier hooked the puck away and turned it back into the corner to teammate Martin St. Louis, whose pass was converted by Ruslan Fedotenko. "Set the tone for the series," Tampa Bay center Tim Taylor said. "Not only did it get Vinny going, but for our team to see him working like that, it grabbed everybody by the throat." Lecavalier would score twice in that match and add two more goals in Game 2.

Lecavalier's fifth goal of the series will be stored in the hard drive of hockey memory. With 16.5 seconds left in Game 3 and the Canadiens leading 3-2, Lecavalier, planted outside the crease, took a pass with the blade of his stick between his legs and redirected the puck past goalie Jos� Th�odore. The last time Montreal had seen a stunt that good, it had been performed by Cirque du Soleil. The goal was a by-product of improvisational genius—"I've never practiced that, not even outdoors on a pond," Lecavalier said—and a willingness to mix it up, an attribute Tortorella had been demanding.

"Vinny played with courage," associate coach Craig Ramsay said of Lecavalier. "He wanted to make things happen. He used his big body and determination in this series, not just his talent. That's what can take him to the next level."

Tortorella is reticent about ladling out public hosannas to his players—even during their roll through the first two rounds—and he also refused to comment on his evolving relationship with Lecavalier. "You guys," he said to reporters before Game 4, "get crazy with that." True. The laconic Lecavalier and the simmering Tortorella have been the Bennifer of hockey, their ups and downs a staple of NHL gossip ever since February 2001, when Tortorella, then seven weeks into the job, benched his franchise player in a game against the Buffalo Sabres.

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