Fifteen years ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning won their first Stanley Cup after finishing tops in the Eastern Conference. Though they’ve come close a few times since, they’ve yet to clinch a second championship. This year, however, Tampa Bay flirted with one of the best team performances in NHL history, and there are some intriguing similarities between the club that won the Cup in 2004 and the group that’s aiming to lift the chalice this June. Will the story have the same ending? Players from the 2004 champs, some of whom remain with the organization today, and the 2019 hopefuls both know that winning the Stanley Cup is incredibly difficult. But confidence is high across the organization, and if you’re looking for historical parallels, you don’t have to dig too deeply.
In 2003-04, the ‘Big Three’ of Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St-Louis led the Lightning with a devastating offensive attack. The 2018-19 edition has its own elite trifecta, with captain Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point. It’s easy to stick Lecavalier and Stamkos together, as both are first overall picks who came into town on a wave of bellowing hype. Lecavalier was famously billed as the “Michael Jordan of hockey” by then-owner Art Williams in 1998, before struggling to just 28 points his first season. The next year, though, Lecavalier more than doubled that output. Exactly 10 years later, “Seen Stamkos?” billboards went up all over the city for the impending arrival of the team’s next superstar. Yet Stamkos, too, sputtered in his rookie campaign, until failed retread Barry Melrose was fired as coach 16 games in. Stamkos eventually finished with 46 points in 79 games and then doubled his output as a sophomore.
St-Louis, meanwhile, was a mold-breaking player for the Lightning, proving that a guy generously listed at 5-foot-8 could not only compete, but dominate the NHL and win the scoring race, twice in fact. He paved the way for the undersized Point, though it’s Kucherov who’s going to become the second Lightning player to win the Art Ross Trophy. Besides, Point actually idolized Markus Naslund when he was young. Not only that, he grew up in Calgary, so his memories of the Lightning’s championship come from living in the losing team’s epicenter. “I remember the buzz around the city,” Point said. “People still talk about it today.” (Luckily, his dad was a Sabres fan, so the heartache felt in the city didn’t hit the Point household.)
While the ‘Big Three’ were entering their prime when they won the Cup, Tampa’s current group is in its halcyon days. “There were a lot of young guys who were just becoming superstars,” said Cory Stillman, whose only season with the Lightning was in 2003-04. “The confidence grew with them.”
Stillman arrived in Tampa Bay after three years with the St. Louis Blues. He was expected to replace the offense lost when Vaclav Prospal, the Lightning’s scoring leader the previous season, left for Anaheim as a free agent. Now coach of the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves, he sees another Tampa team with explosive potential. “On the better teams, it’s a matter of when they are going to take off in a game and score two or three goals quickly,” he said. “That’s common with both (the ’04 and ’19) teams.”
If there is one marked difference up front between the two Lightning editions, it’s in the style of play among their depth forwards. When GM Jay Feaster began putting together the team that ultimately became champions, the NHL was at the tail end of the Dead Puck Era, so two of his first moves were for tough guys: Chris Dingman and Andre Roy. This year, Tampa Bay is in the lower third of the league when it comes to fisticuffs, with talented 5-foot-9, 170-pound Yanni Gourde inexplicably leading the way with three tilts through mid-March.
Nonetheless, both teams relied heavily on their depth. Dingman played all 23 games in the ’04 Cup run, while Roy missed only two. And what the current Bolts lack in pugilism they make up for in talent throughout, from Gourde and Alex Killorn to energetic youngsters such as Mathieu Joseph and Anthony Cirelli.
“It was hard to match against us because we had two powerful lines, but we all know it’s six through 12 that gets it done,” said ’04 captain Dave Andreychuk, now Tampa Bay’s vice-president of corporate and community affairs. “We had a good fourth line, and that’s what is happening with this team. Look at what Anthony Cirelli does on the fourth line, that could be the difference. Whether it’s finishing checks, holding pucks in the offensive zone or tiring out the ‘D,’ the depth on this team is pretty good, as the whole league knows.”
It was hard to match against us because we had two powerful lines, but we all know it’s six through 12 that gets it done. We had a good fourth line, and that’s what is happening with this team.
– Dave Andreychuk, captain of the ’04 champs
DEFENSE & GOALTENDING
On the back end, offensive wizard Dan Boyle led the Lightning’s defense corps in 2004, with big Pavel Kubina also capable of contributing points. Otherwise, it was a solid all-around group, with Darryl Sydor added during the season to be the “guy who had been there before,” having won a Cup in 1999 with the Dallas Stars.
This year’s Lightning are led on the back end by Victor Hedman, who is coming off his first Norris Trophy. He is the team’s undisputed No. 1, but he does have help from Ryan McDonagh and a solid supporting cast behind them, including sophomore Mikhail Sergachev.
Perhaps the most interesting parallel, however, comes in net. Russian stopper Nikolai Khabibulin manned the crease for the ’04 champs, while countryman Andrei Vasilevskiy patrols the pipes these days. But the story goes beyond the No. 1s. “Both teams had incredible goaltending and great backup goalies as well,” said Feaster, who is now Tampa’s vice-president of community hockey development. “Johnny Grahame was very important to us, and Louis Domingue has put up even better numbers this year than Johnny did.”
Indeed, when Vasilevskiy missed 14 games with a foot injury in November and December, it was Domingue who held the fort, winning 11 of 13 appearances in that span. For the ’04 champs, it wasn’t an injury that forced Grahame to step in for a stretch, but solid goaltending from the backup was required nonetheless.
“ ‘Khabby’ did not play well in January, he had a bit of a slump,” Andreychuk said. “Johnny Grahame came on, and the 36 points he got for our team were essential in us finishing first. Same thing happened here, Vasilevskiy goes down for 14 games and Louis comes in and plays unbelievable.”
Behind the bench, the Lightning have found success with two coaches known for their big (albeit polar-opposite) personalities: John Tortorella with the Cup champs and now Jon Cooper with the Cup contenders. Tortorella was famous for his “safe is death” mantra during Tampa Bay’s run, and Cooper also presides over a team that pushes the pace.
“It’s a very businesslike approach, it’s about our team, our system,” Feaster said. “ ‘Torts’ was the same. He wasn’t concerned with what the other team was going to do. If we played our system and didn’t get the result, he’d say, ‘Well, you tip your hat to the other team.’ I get the same sense from ‘Coop.’ ”
For all their similarities, however, these two Lightning teams aren’t exact replicas. To begin with, the ’04 champs didn’t have a track record of success. The previous season, they’d won the lowly Southeast Division and beaten Washington in the first round for the franchise’s first playoff series victory. But Tampa Bay lost to New Jersey in the second round as the Devils went on to win the Cup. “There wasn’t that expectation, that history, to indicate we could go all the way the next year,” Feaster said. “The core of this (2019) team has been through it all. They’ve experienced those heartbreaks.”
Much of the current squad has gone through the wringer several times already, beginning with the Cup final loss to Chicago in 2015. In two of the next three seasons, the Lightning lost the Eastern Conference final in Game 7, both times to the eventual Cup champion (first Pittsburgh, then Washington). In the middle, they missed the playoffs, with Stamkos playing only 17 games because of a major knee injury. Last year’s loss to Washington particularly stung, as the Lightning were shut out in the final two games after being up 3-2 in the series.
“We got a little snakebit at the end against Washington,” said center Tyler Johnson. “It would have been nice if we would have been able to close them out early, and that’s something we could have learned, to have that killer instinct right away. Credit to them, they played really well, but in the end there we just couldn’t score. We hit a lot of posts and sometimes there are things you can’t control.”
But adversity can be a good thing. The ’04 champs see a 2019 team with a chip on its shoulder, and the current Lightning club is using its recent playoff failures as motivation. Now, it’s a matter of walking the walk. The ’04 champs cruised through the first two rounds of the playoffs, losing just one game to the New York Islanders before sweeping the Montreal Canadiens. That put them in the best position possible heading into a gruelling, physical series against the heavy Philadelphia Flyers that went the distance.
“No team won two games in a row,” Andreychuk recalled. “It was back and forth, and it was a dogfight. Game 6 in their building, we’re up with a minute to go and end up losing. All the discussion on the plane ride home and the next day was about the fact we worked all regular season to get a Game 7 in our building. We had that on our side.”
The 2004 Cup final featured another heavy opponent in the Calgary Flames. Iginla was the offensive catalyst, while Miikka Kiprusoff was the wall in net. The Lightning knew the Flames would be finishing every single check, and Tortorella did a good job of preparing his team for the onslaught.
It’s a very businesslike approach, it’s about our team, our system. ‘Torts’ was the same. He wasn’t concerned with what the other team was going to do…I get the same sense from ‘Coop.’
– Jay Feaster, GM of the ’04 champs
After losing Game 5 at home, the Lightning were faced with an elimination game on the road, with the Stanley Cup in the building. A controversial no-goal call on Calgary’s Martin Gelinas elicited groans from the Saddledome crowd that the eight-year-old Point probably heard from his house, and the game went into extra frames. St-Louis scored the winner in double overtime, and then Ruslan Fedotenko iced the series in Game 7 back in Tampa Bay with both Lightning goals in a 2-1 Cup victory.
If this year’s installment is going to win the Cup, they too will have to get past some heavy teams. Washington knocked them out last year, of course, but Boston will be looking for revenge in the Atlantic Division bracket before that. Can the fancy Lightning win when the going gets rough?
“I know we can,” Johnson said. “We’ve done it in the past. Last year, teams tried to play physical against us and I thought we responded really well. A lot of guys on our team like to play with an edge and people underestimate us in that regard. We’re trying to prepare ourselves for anything.”
Thanks to their winning ways, the Lightning have given themselves the luxury of pacing themselves this season. A playoff spot was inevitable long before it became a mathematical certainty, and that allowed Cooper to give his top guns a bit of a break. “I think this team has thought about what will happen in the playoffs since November,” Andreychuk said. “Nobody plays more than 20 minutes up front, Hedman’s ice time is down, Vasilevskiy, because of the 14 games (injured), has been rested. The whole year has been geared up for the playoffs. Has the lesson been learned? They’ve talked about it.”
And now it’s time to do it. This isn’t a squad that will simply be happy to be there. This season is the culmination of years of building, with a dose of never again thrown in for good measure. Owner Jeff Vinik has provided the franchise with all the tools necessary and GM Julien BriseBois has continued the solid work that began with his predecessor (and now senior advisor) Steve Yzerman.
Feaster remembers celebrating on the ice after Tampa Bay’s victory in ’04 and tracking down his boss, owner Bill Davidson, for a heart-to-heart. “I thanked him for giving me a chance to manage this team,” Feaster said. “He put his arms on my shoulders, gave them a squeeze and with a twinkle in his eye, said, ‘Jay, never in my wildest dreams…’ The difference this year is that I don’t see Mr. Vinik doing that to Julien BriseBois or Steve Yzerman. This is a purposeful march.”
Let’s see if the Lightning can finally arrive at their coveted destination for the first time in 15 years.