Lecavalier rediscovers game-changing talent
BRANDON, Fla. -- Vinny Lecavalier stood at the left post and deftly slipped a puck between his legs, followed quickly by his stick before snapping off a deceptive shot on goal.
That particular play occurred early in the second period of Wednesday's Game 1 against the Penguins, and only a brilliant save by Marc-Andre Fleury prevented the puck from getting into the net. But immediately following the between-the-legs attempt, flashbacks began to flutter through the minds of those around in 2004 when Lecavalier had a similar play against Montreal that found the net in the dying seconds of Game 3 that sent the game into overtime.
The Lecavalier who made that play in 2004 looks an awful lot like the Lecavalier from Wednesday night.
"When Vinny put that stick between his legs and almost scored, it reminded me immediately of that game in Montreal in the 2004 series. He scored just like that,'' said defenseman Pavel Kubina, who was with Tampa Bay in 2004. "This time it was so close, it was just a lucky save and you know, I see the same guy.''
The return of Lecavalier as a dominant force comes at the ideal time for Tampa Bay heading into tonight's Game 3 against the Penguins, with the series tied.
But the better part of the past two seasons, Lecavalier appeared to be a bit of a lost soul looking for direction. Amid off-ice turmoil surrounding the ownership situation, plenty of headline drama once the ownership was in place and clouded by constant rumor-mill talk of being dealt, Lecavalier looked like a shadow of his previous self.
From 2006-08, Lecavalier scored 92 goals and had 198 points, capturing the Rocket Richard Trophy in leading the league with 52 goals in 2006-07. The past two seasons, however, his production dipped to 53 goals and 137 points while dealing with shoulder and wrist surgeries.
The major slip in scoring brought the doubters out wondering whether Lecavalier would ever be a force again.
But when Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman assumed control over the summer, he held a conversation with Lecavalier assuring him there would be no trade forthcoming. When coach Guy Boucher was hired, he held a conversation with Lecavalier assuring him that the coaching staff would be leaning on Lecavalier to be a leader on and off the ice.
The summer conversations worked like a magic button, allowing Lecavalier to erase what took place the previous two seasons.
"I just think Steve, with the talk we had last summer, and Guy helping me out also, he told me that if I drive and do the things right, things will start going in,'' Lecavalier said. "I really tried to start doing that, then it paid off in the end.''
The difference is easily recognizable, not only in the point production -- Lecavalier finished the regular season with 18 goals and 30 points in the final 28 games -- but in the way he plays. Lecavalier is parked in the crease on the power play battling for position -- like he did on his goal in Game 2 on Friday -- and he uses his 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame to protect the puck along the boards while driving into the defensive zone on the backcheck.
"I think the last couple of years were hard on everybody, and maybe being captain he was putting a little more pressure on himself and trying to figure everything out,'' left wing Ryan Malone said. "And I'm sure any less distraction with everything going well for him, the injuries are behind him, he has that edge back to his game and he's hungry.
"I think all the older guys here that have missed the playoffs, you don't experience that, you lose that hockey feel. Now, you get a little taste of it and you want it ever more. I think he's gotten a little taste here, and he likes it so far.''
When Boucher saw Lecavalier in training camp, he said he wasn't sure why others were saying Lecavalier needed to be pushed. Instead, it's Lecavalier who has been doing the pushing.
"Vinny Lecavalier is just a bulldozer out there, and we are getting a lot of energy because of it,'' Boucher said. "And what's important to recognize that Vinny is not just scoring goals. That's the end result of the entire process that he has been so meticulous about for months now, and it's paying off not just for him, but for the entire team because he has just been a horse out there.''
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