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Steve Stamkos was nearly the hero in his NHL debut

by Dan Rosen
PRAGUE, Czech RepublicSteven Stamkos' initial NHL shot on goal came 4:56 into his first NHL game. Tampa Bay's prized rookie had his first NHL breakaway attempt 50 minutes into his first NHL game.

He's still waiting for his first NHL point, but the hockey world no longer has to wait for its latest sensation.

Stamkos made his highly anticipated debut Saturday in the Lightning's 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers at O2 Arena. He finished a minus-1 with two shots on goal and a 3-3 record on faceoffs in just 8:25 of ice time, but those stats hardly tell the story of how successful the No. 1 draft pick's debut was.

"Stamkos really showed some flashes of what he can do," Tampa Bay coach Barry Melrose said.
Stamkos' ice time was limited due to the seven penalties the Lightning took, giving the Rangers 13:27 in power-play time. Since he hasn't earned power-play time yet, he lost another 7:48 of ice time.

"Steven is one of our guys affected by the penalties because he doesn't kill penalties," Melrose said. "He can get flying and playing well, but then he sits for a three-minute block and then a four-minute block. It's very hard for skill guys to sit and go with a jump."

Still, if it weren't for Henrik Lundqvist, Stamkos could have had the highlight of the night. Stamkos broke in on a breakaway with just over 10 minutes remaining in a 1-1 game, but Lundqvist made a brilliant glove save to keep the kid off the board.

"He got a little delayed because I think he hit the D's stick, so I went down a little and opened up my glove side," Lundqvist said. "I knew right away he was going glove because it was wide open. As soon as I saw him hit the puck I just reacted. It felt pretty good to make that save."

During 5-on-5 situations, Stamkos was playing on the second line with Ryan Malone and Radim Vrbata.

"He won some draws in our end and he played pretty well on our end," Melrose said. "I know he was on the ice for one goal against (Markus Naslund's), but the mistake was made up the ice, not where he was. You could see that that guy is pretty special."

Prucha relieved — After playing on the fifth line during Friday's practice, Rangers forward Petr Prucha thought for sure he was going to be held out of Saturday night's game as a healthy scratch, even with his mother in the audience.

The Czech-born winger was thoroughly disappointed … until Saturday morning, when Prucha was among the group of Rangers who left the ice after their pre-game skate.

The players who stay on the longest in the morning are usually going to be scratched that night, so Prucha was thrilled to be off earlier than Patrick Rissmiller, Dan Fritsche and Fredrik Sjostrom, who were the Rangers' three scratches Saturday night.

"I saw myself in the fifth line (Friday), so I was really disappointed because this is in Prague and it can happen only once in your life," Prucha said. "I was like, hopefully something will happen so I can get in. I'm glad that I'm in."

Prucha said Rangers coach Tom Renney told him he was trying to look at a different combination during Friday's practice, which is why Prucha was on the fifth line. Renney said after contemplating his lineup, he decided Prucha was his best option.

Renney then started Prucha and fellow Czech Michal Rozsival because, "We thought it was appropriate."

Debut central — Stamkos wasn't the only player making his NHL regular-season debut Saturday night in Prague. Tampa Bay defenseman Vladimir Mihalik and Rangers center Lauri Korpikoski were doing the same.

Korpikoski actually made his NHL debut by playing one game in last season's Stanley Cup Playoffs (he scored a goal against Pittsburgh), but Mihalik had never played before. The Slovak blueliner couldn't believe his dream was coming true in Prague.

"It's unbelievable," he said. "This wasn't in my dreams. This is just, wow, unbelievable. I can have my friends and family here because it's not that far. I mean, it's still pretty far, but it's a lot closer than Tampa."

Both Mihalik and Korpikoski impressed their respective coaches throughout the preseason. Melrose likes Mihalik's reach and how he plays the game safely. Renney likes Korpikoski's energy and his ability to get and keep the puck around the net.

Mihalik was paired with Andrej Meszaros, who Melrose calls the Bolts' No. 1 defenseman. Renney had Korpikoski centering the third line with Prucha and Callahan.

"Mihalik just continues to impress," Melrose said. "He was poised tonight with the puck and made some great plays. He just doesn't get beat one-on-one. He's got that long reach and he's like a condor out there where he's very tough to get around."

Whirlwind week — When the Lightning were playing in Bratislava earlier in the week, 37-year-old defenseman Jamie Heward was contemplating his future in the organization as he was headed to Norfolk of the AHL "to help the young kids down there," he said.

Two days later, Heward got a call telling him to hop on a plane for Prague because the big club needed him on the ice. Heward was in Tampa Bay's lineup Saturday night as Melrose chose to play him over second-year blueliner Mike Lundin. He wound up playing 20:50, including some power-play time.

Melrose said he chose Heward, who was previously with the Lightning on a tryout basis only, because he's a "big body and he doesn't beat himself, and that's what we need right now. We have a very young D and he's a right-handed shot.

"A defenseman is never out of the game," Melrose added. "They're so hard to find."

Heward, who played with the Lightning in their first exhibition game at Pittsburgh on Sept. 20, said he plans on doing more than just adding a veteran presence to a defense that without him has an average age of 24.

"That's probably the main reason of why I'm here, but having said that I hope to add something to the team as well," Heward said. "I'm not here just to play five or six minutes a night. I am hoping to get some good ice time and move on from there."

"He won some draws in our end and he played pretty well on our end," Melrose said. "I know he was on the ice for one goal against (Markus Naslund's), but the mistake was made up the ice, not where he was. You could see that that guy is pretty special." – Lightning coach Barry Melrose on Steve Stamkos

Not enough shots — The Lightning liked their chances early in the game, and as Melrose said, "the right guys had the chances."

Vaclav Prospal, Vinny Lecavalier, Steven Stamkos and Gary Roberts combined for seven shots in the first 10 minutes, but the Lightning managed only 14 over the last 50 minutes, clearly not enough for their coach.

"We have to hit the net more and we have to get the puck to the net more in 5-on-5," Melrose said.

"That's sort of an internal battle with our skill players. They don't like to shoot it and they don't like to go get it and that culturally has to change here. Guys like (Scott) Gomez and (Chris) Drury are great examples. These guys dump it in and go get it. Our star players have to do that once in a while also. Not all the time, but if there is nothing there in a close game sometimes you have to go in and go get it."

While Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay's lone goal-scorer, agreed the team needs to take more shots, he wasn't concerned about Saturday night's result.

"This is a new team for a lot of people. We'll bounce back," St. Louis said. "I mean, we didn't think it was going to be a walk in the park. Some adversity from the get go, I think it's going to judge our character and bring our team closer together."
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