Posters and T-shirts proclaiming STANLEY NEEDS A TAN were
everywhere in Tampa during the playoffs, but until Martin St.
Louis's goal 33 seconds into the second overtime of Game 6 last
Saturday, it seemed the hometown Lightning would be the ones who
emerged from the Stanley Cup finals looking red-faced. After
being outworked and outplayed in four of the first five
games--and falling behind the Calgary Flames three games to
two--Tampa Bay engineered a stunning comeback, putting together
its first back-to-back victories in more than a month and winning
its first championship with a 2-1 triumph in Game 7 on Monday
Lord Stanley's chalice is North America's oldest professional
trophy, but this year's final belonged to the NHL's youngest
generation. Tampa Bay, which joined the league in 1992, had won
just one playoff series before this season (timeline, below) and
is the first of the eight franchises added since '91 to win the
Cup. The series also amounted to a debutant ball for 24-year-old
Lightning center Brad Richards, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner and
the playoffs' leading scorer with 26 points.
Richards had an assist on Monday, but the deciding game belonged
to another newly minted, rosy-cheeked playoff hero. Right wing
Ruslan Fedotenko, 25, who sat out Game 4 after being ridden
face-first into the boards late in Game 3, scored on the power
play midway through the first period to give the Lightning a 1-0
lead. It was a critical goal in a series in which the team that
scored first won each game, but it was the Ukrainian's strike
late in the second--a blistering shot off a brilliant feed from
Vincent Lecavalier--that proved to be the Cup winner. With
Calgary pressing frantically after center Craig Conroy's goal
midway through the third, Lightning goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin
made a series of Cup-worthy stops, ensuring Fedotenko of his
third game-winning goal of the playoffs, second to Richards's
If the upstart Flames had no business being in the Cup
finals--the league's 12th playoff seed, they were the first team
to get there by beating three division winners--Tampa Bay often
looked as if it had no business winning them, especially after
Game 5. (Only four of 18 teams that had lost the fifth game of a
deadlocked finals had come back to win the series.) Before his
16-save effort in the clincher, Khabibulin (1.71 goals-against
average in the playoffs) was off his sparkling form of the early
postseason, too often leaving rebounds lying around his crease.
And despite coach John Tortorella's frequent and cliched
reminders that the Lightning's best players needed to be its best
players, top-line standouts St. Louis and Lecavalier (combined
nine points in the finals) were largely somnambulant--at least
until St. Louis pounced on a rebound and sneaked the puck past
Calgary goalie Miikka Kiprusoff to finally end Game 6.
June 13, 2004
On the eve of the finals St. Louis had joked that for hockey to
become a religion in Tampa the locals would have to "watch less
wrestling." Early in the series it was difficult to tell the
difference between the two sports, and not only because Hulk
Hogan revved up the crowd before games at the St. Pete Times
Forum and his daughter, Brooke, sang the Canadian and U.S.
national anthems. Games 1 through 4 were ugly and penalty filled.
And while the Lightning had the band Cheap Trick entertaining
fans outside the Forum, the Flames countered with cheap shots.
The worst of them came late in Game 4 when Calgary pest Ville
Nieminen came in with his elbow high and slammed Lecavalier
face-first into the glass.
The play had repercussions beyond its apparent impact on
Lecavalier, who played listlessly the rest of the series.
Nieminen was suspended for Game 5, a punishment that had Flames
coach Darryl Sutter looking for grassy knolls. He accused the
league office of conspiring against his plucky team. "We know
what we're up against," Sutter said at a press conference. "We're
the little team that wasn't supposed to be here, and a lot of
people don't want us to be here and [want] to make sure that
we're not successful." NHL commissioner Gary Bettman called the
comments "ill-advised, inappropriate, inaccurate," and they were
also ludicrous. After all, a league intent on rigging the finals
would have made sure two of its most-anonymous teams weren't part
of it. While Canadians rallied around their Flames--Game 6, which
drew 4.7 million viewers, was the most watched hockey broadcast
on CBC in 10 years--the series fell flatter than Gigli in the
U.S. Games 3 through 5 on ABC drew an average rating of less than
2.1, the lowest for a Cup finals on network TV.
Those who did watch saw three thrilling games to close out the
series. In Game 5 last Thursday night the teams alternated
scoring chances like boxers trading jabs. Oleg Saprykin's goal
14:40 into overtime--set up by a superhuman end-to-end effort by
Calgary captain Jarome Iginla--gave the Flames a 3-2 win that put
them on the cusp of their first Cup in 15 years.
When the Lightning arrived in Calgary the next day, Tortorella
announced that his team would stay in Alberta after Saturday's
Game 6 rather than charter home on a red-eye. "We will be having
breakfast here with you on Sunday," Tortorella told reporters,
adding that he had designed the itinerary so his players could
get some needed rest. The scheduling announcement by Tortorella,
who otherwise was loath to reveal anything more than final scores
to the media, sounded suspiciously like a guarantee that there
would be a Game 7.
In fact, the Tampa Bay players' spirits had been lifted after
they'd flown in near silence to Calgary. Upon landing, center Tim
Taylor found a surprise message on his cellphone from retired
defenseman Ray Bourque, a former Boston Bruins teammate and
future Hall of Famer. Bourque won the Cup in 2001 with the
Colorado Avalanche, the most recent team to climb out of a 3-2
series hole, and he was calling to help spark the Lightning
before Game 6. Taylor borrowed a tape recorder from the Tampa Bay
p.r. staff and played Bourque's message for his teammates in the
dressing room after their Friday practice at the Saddledome.
"He said not to give up, and he told us what to do and what not
to do in the next game," Taylor said after Game 6. "It's almost
like he was coaching us."
Bourque's words may have been most resonant for 40-year-old
captain Dave Andreychuk, who, as the active player who had played
in the most games without winning a Cup, was in the same position
Bourque had been in '01. But the message also stirred Tampa Bay's
young Canadian players, who had grown up watching Bourque. Said
Richards after Game 6, "Hearing that message sent chills down my
Richards was a spine-tingling presence throughout the series,
capping a dramatic postseason with a finals in which he was by
far the Lightning's best skater. Tampa Bay finished the season
undefeated (31-0-2) in games in which Richards scored, and his
heroics in Game 6 were about all that saved the Lightning. He had
two power-play goals in the second period, then assisted on the
game-winner. Richards has been a topflight scorer since his days
in junior hockey, but his second goal was the result of the edge
he has brought to his game this season. After the puck emerged
from a scrum along the boards in the Calgary zone, Richards
stripped Flames forward Marcus Nilson and sent a shot whistling
through Kiprusoff's five hole. "When I didn't play well in [last
year's] playoffs it was because I didn't want the puck," says
Richards, who went goal-less in 11 postseason games last spring.
"I want the puck more now and want to get through some of the
things that are tougher than in the regular season."
"He's a young, up-and-coming star," says Tampa Bay winger Chris
Dingman, who was also one of Bourque's teammates on the 2001
Avalanche. "And this is where guys make a name for themselves."
While Richards was creating an identity, Iginla, even in losing,
was forging a legend. Iginla dominated Game 5 with a blend of
grit and grace that has become his calling card and that is
reminiscent of a young Mark Messier. Late in the second period
Iginla put Calgary ahead 2-1 when he outraced Lightning
defenseman Darryl Sydor to a loose puck in the offensive zone and
sent an impossible-angle shot over Khabibulin's right pad, just
inside the post. Iginla played a stunning 31 minutes in the game,
including more than seven as he barreled around in an overtime
performance for the ages. His final shift, which lasted either
exactly a minute (if you believe the Flames staff's stopwatch) or
closer to twice that (if you believe the retellings in the
Calgary dressing room and the city's papers), was an ode to
rollicking old-time hockey: Iginla roaring end to end and corner
to corner, losing his helmet in a collision behind the Tampa Bay
net, then launching a blistering slap shot into traffic in front
of Khabibulin. Saprykin banged in the rebound, but afterward
Iginla was the talk of both dressing rooms. "Jarome was an animal
out there," marveled Conroy, who called the tour de ice the
greatest shift he'd ever seen.
Iginla wasn't nearly such a factor in Games 6 and 7, when he was
hounded relentlessly by Tampa's Sydor and Pavel Kubina, who
combined to hold him without a point. At times Iginla looked
fatigued. Tampa Bay was wearing down as well--"Our tanks are
pretty empty," defenseman Dan Boyle said after the Game 6
marathon--but on a muggy Monday night the Lightning players were
energized by their suddenly hockey-mad fans. They have the summer
to rest. And to help Stanley work on his tan.
A LONG, STRANGE TRIP
It took 14 years, but the Lightning finally completed its run
from rock bottom to the top.
Hall of Fame center Phil Esposito announces he is heading a group
that will bid for an expansion franchise in Tampa Bay.
Esposito stages an exhibition game at the Suncoast Dome between
Wayne Gretzky's Kings and Mario Lemieux's Penguins. The game
draws an astonishing 25,581 but is delayed 10 minutes because of
puddles on the ice.
With his financing in question, Esposito goes to Tokyo to make a
pitch to Japanese investors. Esposito later says, "I said
'hockey,' but they thought I said 'sake,' so they gave me the
The franchise--named the Lightning by Esposito after an epiphany
during a storm--is awarded to his group over Compuware, which
balks at the $50 million expansion fee.
Female goalie Manon Rheaume plays in an exhibition game versus
the Blues, generating needed publicity. She allows two goals on
nine shots. Until Nikolai Khabibulin, Rheaume is the most
renowned Lightning goalie.
Chris Kontos has four goals as Tampa beats Chicago 7-3 in the
franchise opener. B-list Canadian actor Alan Thicke is pregame
master of ceremonies.
After one season at the Fairgrounds--a converted exhibition hall
so cramped the Zamboni has to park outside--the Lightning moves
to the Suncoast Dome, now rechristened the ThunderDome.
For the first time Tampa Bay makes the playoffs; loses to the
Flyers in six.
The Lightning moves into the Ice Palace.
Insurance magnate Art Williams agrees to buy the debt-ridden team
for $117 million from majority owner Takashi Okubo, who had never
attended a home game. He was so elusive he never met
commissioner Gary Bettman until April '98.
After taking Vincent Lecavalier with the No. 1 pick in the draft,
Williams declares that the 18-year-old will be "the Michael
Jordan of hockey." Brad Richards is drafted in the third round at
With Tampa Bay 157-253-54 under his direction, Esposito is fired
as general manager by Williams.
Williams sells the Lightning for a loss to William Davidson,
owner of the NBA's Pistons. Davidson executives suggest he bought
the team as a real estate deal.
July 31, 2000
Tampa Bay signs free-agent right wing Martin St. Louis.
Longtime NHL assistant John Tortorella is named the Lightning's
fourth head coach.
Assistant general manager Jay Feaster succeeds Rick Dudley as
G.M. after Feaster wouldn't support Dudley's attempt to trade
Tampa Bay wins its first playoff series by beating the Capitals,
2-1, in triple overtime in Game 6.
Team mascot Thunder-Bug spends 16 days on the roof of the St.
Pete Times Forum to attract the publicity that helps assure a
sellout for a postseason game against the Islanders. Tampa Bay,
the Eastern Conference's top seed, will fail to sell out three of
its first five playoff home games.
With ThunderStix clapping in the Forum, the Lightning falls
behind the Flames in the first Stanley Cup finals game in team
history. During a poor power play in the second period, the crowd
boos. Calgary wins, 4-1.
In Game 7, captain Dave Andreychuk and Tampa Bay beat Calgary 2-1
to win the Stanley Cup.