Vincent Lecavalier is back.
The rangy centre who was a key piece of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Stanley Cup victory in 2004 and scored 52 goals in 2006-07 seemed to fade away for a couple of seasons. But he’s back scoring regularly again in the NHL playoffs.
The 31-year-old said Monday it has a lot to do with the confidence he has rediscovered on a Tampa Bay club that has been rebuilt under first-year owner Jeff Vinik and rookie general manager Steve Yzerman.
”In the last three years when you lose and you’re almost in last place, I guess you question yourself and you start to lose confidence,” Lecavalier said during a conference call. ”I always believed I could do it, but it definitely makes it easier when you start winning.”
Lecavalier was front and centre as the Lightning won the opening two games over the top-seeded Capitals in Washington in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal. He picked up two assists in a 4-2 opening win before scoring twice, including the overtime winner, in a 3-2 victory in Game 2.
The Montreal native awoke Monday morning with 10 points from nine playoff games, tied with teammate Martin St. Louis for second in playoff scoring behind Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux.
A tough test awaits at home, however, as the teams play back-to-back in Tampa on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. That should be more taxing on the Lightning because they were coming off a seven-game first-round against Pittsburgh while Washington got some rest after beating the New York Rangers in five contests.
Coach Guy Boucher gave his players Monday off to rest.
The Lightning shocked the Capitals in the first game but were outshot by a wide margin in Game 2. But veteran goaltender Dwayne Roloson stood on his head and Tampa Bay made the most of its scoring chances.
In overtime, a line change mix-up allowed Randy Jones to hit Teddy Purcell at the far blue-line. He slipped a pass to Lecavalier alone in front of Michal Neuvirth for a quick shot over the goalie’s glove.
”I just tried to get it as high as I could as fast as I could,” said Lecavalier. ”In Game 1, we had a good chance down low and I tried to go between his legs and he had the part of the net covered.”
Now the Lightning, who rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat Pittsburgh, is in the driver’s seat with an unexpected 2-0 lead.
”Roly has just been phenomenal,” Lecavalier said. ”We played well as a team, but if you’d have said before the series started that we’d be ahead by two… it definitely surprised us.”
Still, there are things to correct. The Lightning has been outshot in every playoff game thus far and wants to get more shots on Neuvirth and more traffic in front of him.
Tampa Bay also hopes to down on the penalties that put the Caps on the power play for much of the second period of Game 2.
What the Lightning doesn’t want to change is the timely scoring that has the club just two wins away from its first conference final berth since winning the Cup. Lecavalier has had much to do with that.
He said it started last summer when rookie head coach Guy Boucher took some of the veterans aside and talked to them individually about the team and their performances.
Boucher said Yzerman’s playing career was a perfect template for Lecavalier—a scoring star who was transformed into a two-way centre who ended up winning Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings.
”Yzerman, who went from a big star to a winner, was a great example,” said Boucher. ”Steve was put on the third line and now he’s known as one of the best two-way players ever.
”With Vinny, the mistake would have been to try to get him back to where he was. It’s a different reality now. We want a player who leads by winning faceoffs, backchecking, blocking shots, being dedicated to defence instead of pushing for offence and cheating. If he can score 50 goals and be a complete player, we’ll all be happy.”
Lecavalier started the season with nine points in 11 games then broke his right hand. When he returned, he put together a season of 25 goals and 29 assists in 65 games, boosting the attack just as first-half goal-scoring leader Steven Stamkos began to tail off.
Since his 108-point campaign in 2006-07, Lecavalier’s totals had dropped to 92, 67 and 70 as he played through shoulder and wrist injuries.
”I started to struggle to find the net and then it snowballed,” said Lecavalier. ”The team wasn’t doing well and it was two tough seasons, but coming in this year was like starting from scratch.
”When I came back from my injury, I scored some goals and it was fun to be at the rink again. Then it snowballs the other way.”