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Stamkos showing why he was No. 1 pick

by John Kreiser
A few thoughts as we congratulate Glen Wesley, whose No. 2 was retired by Carolina:

Progress report -- One of Rick Tocchet's major objectives as interim coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning has been to groom Steven Stamkos for success in the NHL.

It hasn't been easy.

Former coach Barry Melrose told the world that the No. 1 pick in last June's Entry Draft wasn't ready for the physical grind of an NHL season. After taking the coaching job in mid-November, Tocchet put Stamkos on a strength-training program that has also involved sitting out on occasion -- something no player enjoys.

But Tocchet's work appears to be paying off. Stamkos became the first rookie in Tampa Bay history to get a hat trick when he scored three consecutive goals Tuesday night against Chicago. The natural hat trick put the Lightning ahead 3-1 midway through the second period, but the Hawks spoiled the night by rallying for a 5-3 victory.

"This was one of the best feelings of the year for me so far, but I'd much rather have it in a win," said Stamkos, who triggered a smattering of hats when he scored his third goal, a one-timer from the left circle at 11:38 of the second period.

Tocchet said Stamkos' performance showed that the rookie center is making progress.

"It's big because he knows he can play -- he can show his talents against a quality team like that," Tocchet said. "For him to be on that stage, when we needed those goals on the power play, that was big. The pressure was on and he came through.

"If you look at Chicago, they've got some young players in their second and third year. This is Steven's first year. It's a measuring stick for him, and he did well against those guys tonight."

Stamkos, whose ice time was limited under Melrose, said he's feeling his confidence grow.

''I'm the biggest critic of my game,'' he said. ''At the beginning of the year, with all the stuff that was going on, playing five, six, seven minutes a game, it's tough to get confidence."



Cheers to jeers -- It was a night to celebrate in Raleigh -- the Carolina Hurricanes honored longtime defenseman Glen Wesley by raising his No. 2 to the rafters of the RBC Center. By the end of the night, the cheers were long gone.

The Hurricanes skated off the ice to boos after a 5-1 thumping by the Boston Bruins, who ended a four-game losing streak by dominating their former New England rivals and completing a sweep of their four-game season series.

"At home, for whatever reason, we haven't played very well," forward Ray Whitney said. "It is embarrassing. It's frustrating to have your fans boo you when you leave the ice -- not that it's not warranted. Certainly frustrating and a little bit humiliating."

The Hurricanes scored first when Matt Cullen beat Tim Thomas 11:03 into the game, but gave up the tying goal to Blake Wheeler later in the period, surrendered the go-ahead goal to Shane Hnidy early in the second and fell apart after David Krejci's shorthanded goal with 3:48 left in regulation made it 3-1.

The four-goal loss followed home defeats of 5-0 and 5-1 last week, leaving the Hurricanes just one-game above .500 at the RBC Center -- and ninth in the Eastern Conference, six points out of a playoff berth.

"You can't play like this at home and expect to make the playoffs," said Whitney, the team's leading scorer. "We obviously have to change something. If you want to talk about changing the lines, I think that's making excuses. We just haven't played very well at home, and it's embarrassing."

The right Staff -- The Buffalo Sabres know they'll be without high-scoring forward Thomas Vanek for another couple of weeks as his broken jaw mends. They need more performances like the one they got from Drew Stafford against Toronto to keep afloat in the playoff race until Vanek gets back.

Stafford came up big against the Leafs, scoring two goals as the visiting Sabres polished off the Leafs 4-1 at the Air Canada Centre. He now has 17 goals this season, one more than he managed in all of 2007-08.

"He's been making some plays, moving his feet down low," said Derek Roy, who centers Stafford's line. "He's a strong body in front of the net on the power play and we need that from him. He's playing really well; he had a couple more chances to score some more goals tonight."

Stafford, who just missed his second hat trick this season when a third-period backhander sailed wide, has eight goals in his past 11 games. He started his recent hot streak with a three-goal effort against Edmonton in late January.

"As long as I'm contributing, especially now with Thomas out, we're going to need all the goals we can get and if that's what I'm going to be contributing, than so be it," said Stafford, the 13th selection in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. "I know it's not going to happen every night, but we have a lot of guys in here who can contribute in the goal-scoring department, so I'm just trying to do my part in that aspect, as well as trying to be solid everywhere else."

Cats' meow -- The Florida Panthers paid a big price to bring in goaltender Tomas Vokoun from Nashville in the summer of 2007. They're starting to see a real return on their investment.

Vokoun and the Panthers both stayed hot as Florida moved into sixth place in the Eastern Conference by cooling off the red-hot New Jersey Devils 4-0 at the BankAtlantic Center. Vokoun stopped 36 shutouts for his fifth shutout of the season and the 30th of his career as the Panthers improved to 13-4-3 since Jan. 1.

"He's been unbelievable lately," forward David Booth said. "He's been playing really well and that's why we've had success. That's a very good team over there and to shut them out shows how well Tomas has been playing."

The Panthers are among the four teams tied for the last four playoff spots in the East, five points ahead of ninth-place Carolina and six ahead of 10th-place Pittsburgh. They're trying to make the postseason for the first time since 2000.

"The more separation we can get, the better it is for everybody in this dressing room," Vokoun said after the Panthers' eighth shutout of the season, tying them with Columbus for the most in the NHL. "We want to be in a situation where we control where we go or where we don't go and we don't have to wait for somebody to lose a game or go on a losing streak or something.

"There's a bunch of games left and we're in that position now and it's up to us to keep it."

Fond farewell -- With a ton of road games left and too many teams between them and the final playoff spot in the West, the Colorado Avalanche can't afford to lose any of their few remaining home games. That's why a 3-2 overtime victory against Ottawa was so big.

At 27-30-1, the Avs are below .500 at this stage of the season for the first time since moving to Denver in 1995. They're also tied with Phoenix and St. Louis for last place in the West, seven points out of the last playoff spot.

"Right now, we're at the bottom of the totem pole -- the only way we can move is up," defenseman Jordan Leopold said.

The other good news for the Avs is that center Paul Stastny, out since Dec. 23 with a broken arm, is ready to return during the six-game, 11-day road trip -- possibly as soon as Friday night at Washington.

"We're excited to get Paul back," said forward Wojtek Wolski, whose goal 50 seconds into overtime gave the Avs the victory, "I know he's been skating very hard trying to get ready as quickly as possible. I think it's going to help us on this trip."

Turnabout -- Kevin Bieksa went from goat to hero, with a little help from Pavol Demitra, Roberto Luongo -- and a friendly goal post.

Bieksa got caught pinching early in the third period, and Calgary's Rene Bourque capitalized on the mistake at 6:52 to score the goal that put the Flames ahead 3-2. But with Luongo on the bench for an extra attacker, Bieksa ripped a slap shot through traffic and past Miikka Kiprusoff with 51 seconds left in regulation to get the Canucks even. Demitra scored the only goal of the shootout to give Vancouver a 4-3 victory.

"I had three or four shots in a row but they kept being blocked or I missed the net," Bieksa said. "But the puck kept coming back to me, and I found a way to squeak one in there."

Luongo stopped Calgary's first two shootout tries, then got some help when Todd Bertuzzi's spin-o-rama backhander pinged off the post, ending the game.

"I tried to wait him out," said Luongo, "and once he started the spin-o-rama, I was in tight on him, but sliding out of the net. I guess he just ran out of room."

Before Bieksa's goal, it looked like Kiprusoff would win a goaltending duel with Luongo after a series of spectacular stops -- including a third-period save in which he dove across the crease to rob Kyle Wellwood on what looked like a sure goal.

"He was the best player on the ice tonight," Bourque said of Kiprusoff, who made 40 saves through 65 minutes. "That save on Wellwood was probably the best save in the League over the last two years."

But Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said Wellwood was to blame for not scoring.

"Kyle got what he deserves, I mean, he is not bearing down and had an open net. He's shooting the puck two miles an hour. You have to bear down, you have to put your full weight into it, and you have to shoot it," Vigneault said. "Obviously it looked like the goalie made a big save, but the player didn't have a great attempt."

Getting a charge from Claude -- The San Jose Sharks brought in 43-year-old Claude Lemieux to be an energy player. Against the Edmonton Oilers, he did exactly what he was supposed to do -- give his team a jolt on a night when there was little emotion in the building.

Lemieux gave the Sharks a burst of energy in the second period by getting into a scrap with Edmonton's Theo Peckham. The 21-year-old got the better of Lemieux, but the incident gave the Sharks a shot of emotion.

"It's about doing what you need to do to help the club when it's in need," Lemieux said. "There wasn't much emotion in our game. We needed something going.

"But it's not about fighting," he added. "It's about being physical. It's about being intense. It's got to start somewhere. Being a veteran player, you learn over time when you need a little injection of emotion in a game, and tonight was good."

Center Joe Thornton, who scored late in the second period to give the Sharks a two-goal lead, said Lemieux is doing exactly what the Sharks need him to do.

"It's tough for a guy to come in midway through the season, but I think he's doing a good job," Thornton said. "He's getting his legs and he's really looking strong. I think that little mishap that happened gave our bench a little more energy, and we fed off that because we were kind of dead in the first period. We needed something to jump-start us, and I think he did that."

Material from wire services and team online and broadcast media was used in this report

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