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Carolina Hurricanes vs. Tampa Bay Lightning @NHLdotcom
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GAME: Carolina Hurricanes (28-34-14-6) at Tampa Bay Lightning (46-22-8-6).

TIME: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. EDT.

If the Tampa Bay Lightning are going to successfully defend the Stanley Cup, they'll have to do it without the goalie that led them to the championship.

After finally getting to raise the banner for their 2004 Cup victory, the Lightning begin their title defense when they host the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday.

Khabibulin left Tampa Bay to sign a $27 million, four-year deal with Chicago in early August. After giving long-term contracts to offensive leaders Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, Lightning GM Jay Feaster didn't have enough salary cap room to match the Blackhawks' offer.

Now Tampa Bay will have to count on former backup John Grahame as it looks to hold onto the Cup. In 28 games in the 2003-04 season, Grahame went 18-9-1.

Tampa Bay also signed journeyman Sean Burke to team with Grahame.

Despite having capable players in goal, Feaster realizes losing Khabibulin represents a downgrade.

"When Nik Khabibulin came to this franchise he put the legs under the team," he said. "He gave us the opportunity to win day in and day out. Is it a setback? It is."

Tampa Bay still boasts an impressive group of forwards, led by St. Louis and Lecavalier.

St. Louis won the scoring title and Hart Trophy after posting career highs with 38 goals and 94 points in 2003-04. He was backed by Lecavalier, who had 32 goals and 34 assists.

The Lightning recorded 106 points during their championship season, second in the league to Detroit.

Carolina, meanwhile, hopes its play in the preseason carries over to the regular season. The Hurricanes went 5-2-0-1 this preseason, including a 5-2 win over the Lightning, although Tampa Bay played without St. Louis and Lecavalier.

"It's important to keep in mind that it's an exhibition game and the teams don't have their full lineups," Carolina coach Peter Laviolette said. "But in saying that, exhibitions can set a winning culture or a losing culture.

"I think it is how you approach the game and the players have approached it in order to be successful. I'm happy with the fact we're being successful."

The Hurricanes haven't qualified for the playoffs since their trip to the 2002 Stanley Cup finals, but a flurry of free-agent signings may give them hope of a return to the postseason.

Veteran Oleg Tverdovsky should improve Carolina's defense. Tverdovsky, who spent the past two seasons playing in his native Russia, joins forwards Ray Whitney and Cory Stillman among Carolina's nine key signings. Stillman was one of Tampa Bay's top players on the 2003-04 championship team, recording 80 points.

With holdovers Rod Brind'Amour, Josef Vasicek, Kevyn Adams, Glen Wesley and Erik Cole, the Hurricanes should be well-positioned to take advantage of the new rules designed to make the NHL more high-scoring.

"I like our team," said Brind'Amour, the captain. "We're deeper, and we've got a skilled team. That means we're young and we have a lot more inexperience, but we have some speed guys that can really fly."

Carolina did lose one its top offensive players in defenseman Sean Hill to free agency, but Brind'Amour (12 goals, 26 assists) and Vasicek (19 goals and 45 points) will be counted on to make up for Hill's absence.

The Hurricanes scored a league-low 172 goals in 2003-04.

2003-04 STANDINGS: Hurricanes - 76 points, 3rd place, 30 PB, Southeast Division. Lightning - 106 points, 1st place, Southeast Division.

2003-04 TEAM LEADERS: Hurricanes - Vasicek, 19 goals and 45 points; Brind'Amour and Vasicek, 26 assists; Jesse Boulerice, 127 PIM. Lightning - St. Louis, 38 goals, 56 assists and 94 points; Chris Dingman, 140 PIM.

2003-04 SPECIAL TEAMS: Hurricanes - Power play: 13.8 percent (58 for 420), 27th in NHL. Penalty killing: 81.6 percent (320 for 392), 25th. Lightning - Power play: 17.9 percent (70 for 391), 10th. Penalty killing: 82.6 percent (261 for 316), 20th.

2003-04 GOALTENDERS: Hurricanes - Kevin Weekes (23-30-11, 6 SO, 2.33 GAA); Arturs Irbe (5-2-1, 2.45). Lightning - Khabibulin (28-18-7, 3, 2.33); Grahame (18-9-1, 1, 2.06).

2003-04 SEASON SERIES: Lightning, 3-1-2.

LAST MEETING: March 13, 2004; Hurricanes, 5-1. At Tampa, Fla., Hill had two goals as the Hurricanes snapped the Lightning's 18-game point streak.

2003-04 ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Hurricanes - 15-16-6-4 on the road; Lightning - 24-10-4-3 at home.

Associated Press
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