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Lightning scrambling to save season

by Jerry Brown
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- They are still a lap behind the Eastern Conference playoff race. They lost forward Ryan Malone Saturday, putting nine regulars on their injured list and half of their AHL team in Tampa uniforms. And the magic that took them on a ride during last year's Stanley Cup playoffs has been conspicuous by its absence.
But Tampa Bay hasn't given up on the notion that Lightning can still strike twice.
On the heels of a seven-game winless streak and in danger of having their season end before the All-Star Break, the Lightning, or what's left of them, have regrouped and revived hope. They backed up a huge home win over Boston their first back-to-back road wins of the season – Friday's 2-1 squeaker over Dallas and a 4-3 win Saturday in Phoenix, where an exhausted team took a 4-1 lead to the third period and limped across the finish line.
"We're so short-staffed it's not even funny, then we lost Malone right at the beginning and it's looking grim," Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher said. "(In Dallas) I played our top guys a lot and we needed to play them a lot again and they responded. Let's not kid ourselves, when you're playing back-to—back you need your goalie to be great because it's just an unfair fight."


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The goalie was fighting a lot too. Dwayne Roloson, who came to Tampa Bay last January and backstopped an improbable run to the Eastern Conference finals, hadn't won a game since Nov. 17 and was 0-6-1 in his last seven decisions. But the 42-year-old came up big against the Coyotes, making 15 of his 33 saves in the first period and survived a neck-wrenching, knockout elbow from Phoenix's Martin Hanzal with five minutes left to finish the job.
"Knowing anatomy a little bit, I'd say (the blow affected) C1 (vertebrae) down to about C5 or C6. I got a little adjustment all the way through," Roloson said. "The final minutes were pretty scrambling. When I got hit I took the whole inside edge off my skate … I was hoping our guys could do the job and they did a great job."
The Lightning have struggled defensively, and between the pipes, all season. Their star-studded offense, led by the League's leading goal scorer in Steven Stamkos, hasn't been able to keep up with the 163 goals allowed by the tandem of Roloson and Mathieu Garon. That's five more than the next-leakiest defense in Carolina (158), and the Hurricanes have played three more games.
Tampa Bay could be looking for another goalie in the trade market, ideally one that could do what Roloson did last year when he took over for Mike Smith in January. The Lightning reeled off six straight wins and their goalies allowed six goals in that span.
That hasn't happen this year. Roloson and Garon have been pulled a combined nine times this season, and 3.4 goals a game allowed is too much for even Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent LeCavalier and company to match (minus-31). Add in the losses of Marc-Andre Bergeron, Adam Hall, Victor Hedman, Mattias Ohlund, Tom Pyatt, Ryan Shannon, JT Wyman and now Malone -- who Boucher said was unlikely to be ready for the last game before the All-Star break -- Tuesday against Columbus.

Roloson showed flashes of last year's heroics against the Coyotes. He stood tall during the first period onslaught and made a brilliant glove save on a Ray Whitney backhander in the second period with Phoenix surging and the shorthanded Lightning beginning to wilt.

"I just tried to get over there as quick as I could and fortunately I was able to get the glove up," said Roloson, known for his low-key approach to media interviews. "You can't focus on anything other than the puck You can't focus on if the guys are tired or if they're not. That's out of your control. Just go out and give your guys a chance."

Stamkos, who scored his 32nd goal of the season to help the Lightning jump out to a 3-0 lead, said it was an important win for the team and Roloson. At 44 points, Tampa Bay is still nine points behind eighth-place Washington for the final playoffs spot. But with 35 games left to play, there is still time for a team with plenty of firepower to light the fuse. And a three-game winning streak is a good start.

"A big win," Stamkos said. "We needed everyone on board, but Roli was the reason we got those two points."
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