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Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Chicago Blackhawks

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GAME: Tampa Bay Lightning (36-17-7-5) at Chicago Blackhawks (18-33-9-5).

TIME: Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. EST.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are rarely mentioned among the league's elite teams.

Judging by their recent play, that should change very soon.

Surging Tampa Bay looks to match a franchise record with its sixth straight win when it faces the Chicago Blackhawks for the first time in nearly 15 months.

Nikolai Khabibulin recorded a relatively easy shutout and Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis scored third-period goals, leading the Lightning to a 3-0 victory at Colorado on Monday.

The win was the fifth straight for the Lightning, who have gained points in 12 straight games (9-0-1-2).

Tampa Bay, on the verge of clinching the Southeast Division for the second straight season, is battling Philadelphia, Ottawa, Toronto and Boston for first place in the East. The Lightning are also in the race for the league's best record and home-ice advantage throughout the postseason.

"We have the team to be where we are," Lecavalier said. "In the standings we're first, but we have to stay even keel. There is still a lot of work to do, with 17 or 18 games left to the playoffs. So our work isn't done."

A victory Wednesday would give the Lightning their third six-game win streak this season. Tampa Bay hadn't won six straight in its first 11 years in the NHL. The Lightning set a franchise record Monday with their 18th road win of the season.

The biggest reason for the Lightning's success lately has been St. Louis, who has eight goals and 13 assists during a 12-game point streak - one game shy of the franchise record set by Brian Bradley in 1992-93.

St. Louis, the NHL offensive player of the month for February, is one point behind Detroit's Robert Lang for the NHL scoring lead. St. Louis is the first player to capture the award in consecutive months since Wayne Gretzky in December and January of the 1986-87 season.

Although they have no shot at the playoffs, the Blackhawks have become a difficult team to play against lately.

Adam Munro stopped 33 shots in his NHL debut, and fellow rookie Matt Keith scored his first NHL goal in Chicago's 2-2 tie at Nashville on Monday.

Tyler Arnason also scored for the Blackhawks, 5-4-1 since losing eight of 10.

"That shows what our team is made of," Chicago coach Brian Sutter said. "We had three 20-year-old kids on the ice. It was a tie, but it was character win for us. Our whole team showed a lot of pride."

Munro, the Blackhawks' top pick in the 2001 draft, had been playing with Norfolk of the AHL before being called up two weeks ago.

"For the first period, the butterflies were flying around," Munro said. "After that, I felt pretty confident in myself."

Blackhawks rookie Tuomo Ruutu has four goals and six assists in his last seven games.

STANDINGS (through March 1): Lightning - 84 points, 1st place, Southeast Division. Blackhawks - 50 points, 4th place (tied), 35 PB, Central Division.

TEAM LEADERS: Lightning - St. Louis, 32 goals, 44 assists and 76 points; Chris Dingman, 129 PIM. Blackhawks - Kyle Calder, 20 goals; Arnason and Bryan Berard, 23 assists; Mark Bell, 40 points; Scott Nichol, 113 PIM.

SPECIAL TEAMS (through March 1): Lightning - Power play: 16.8 percent (47 for 279), 10th in NHL. Penalty killing: 84.7 percent (188 for 222), 11th. Blackhawks - Power play: 13.3 percent (39 for 294), 28th. Penalty killing: 85.3 percent (262 for 307), 6th.

GOALTENDERS: Lightning - Khabibulin (21-15-6, 3 SO, 2.33 GAA); John Grahame (15-7-1, 1, 1.86). Blackhawks - Michael Leighton (5-15-6, 2, 2.93); Munro (0-0-1, 1.85).

2002-03 SEASON SERIES: Blackhawks, 2-0.

LAST MEETING: Dec. 8, 2002; Blackhawks, 3-1. At Chicago, Theo Fleury's goal with 4:57 left in regulation snapped a tie for the Blackhawks.

ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Lightning - 18-10-3-3 on the road; Blackhawks - 12-10-5-4 at home.


Associated Press
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