A Bolt From the Blue
No Longer Laughingstock, Lightning Charges Into First Conference Finals
By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 8, 2004; Page D01
In a suburban hockey rink shaded from Florida's searing sunshine by palm trees, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the NHL's hottest team, returned to work early this week after sweeping past the Montreal Canadiens and into its first Eastern Conference finals.
Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards, all forwards, and goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin -- four of the NHL's best players through the first two rounds of the playoffs -- lightheartedly skated through drills, joking and laughing among themselves. Even John Tortorella, the Lightning's scowling coach, managed an occasional smile.
And why not? If any team has earned the right to live in the moment, and enjoy every second of it, that team is the Lightning, which was so bad as recently as four seasons ago, it was the punch line of jokes around the NHL.
But no more. Despite a payroll that is roughly half of the Philadelphia Flyers', a 12-year history marked mostly by folly and failure, a public spat between Tortorella and Lecavalier earlier this season, and whispers of relocation if the team does not get millions of dollars in tax relief from the local government, Tampa Bay is four wins from a chance to play for the Stanley Cup. And the team has done it by playing an up-tempo, freewheeling style that has endeared the Lightning to fans around the league.
This afternoon, the Lightning will face the Flyers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. The series will pit the Lightning's youth and speed against a Flyers team defined by experience and brawn, Tampa Bay's fledgling playoff pedigree vs. a Philadelphia franchise with a rich postseason history that includes two Stanley Cups. The Lightning won all four regular season games between the two teams.
Game 1 of the Western Conference finals between the Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks is Sunday afternoon.
Ask two of the Lightning's longest tenured players, defensemen Pavel Kubina and Jassen Cullimore, to explain the team's transformation from laughingstock to contender, and their answer can be summed up in one word: stability. It's something the franchise had not known until Detroit Pistons managing partner William Davidson bought the Lightning in 1999, and the promotion two years ago of General Manager Jay Feaster, whose commitment to keeping the team together has paid off.
"When I first got here, we'd start with a 23-man roster at the beginning of the year and by the end of the year there would be four guys left from that team," said Cullimore, who has been with the Lightning since 1998. "And not only that, we ended up with three different owners, three different coaches, three different GMs in a span of three or four years. Everyone had their own vision of what they wanted the team to be. Everything kept changing. Now, to have this stability, it makes a huge difference."
"There is no comparison between the old Lightning and the new Lightning," said Kubina, who is in his seventh season with the franchise. "We've grown up as a team. They kept us together. If you look at our team, there's probably over 10 guys who have been here for four years. We're getting older and smarter."
Many of those players -- especially Khabibulin, who plays a position that is most important to a team's success or failure this time of year -- are shining brightest in the playoffs. After being publicly challenged by Tortorella in March, Khabibulin is the NHL's best goaltender in the playoffs, with an 8-1 record, a sublime 0.99 goals against average and an eye-popping .964 save percentage.
On a mezzanine behind the Lightning's goal inside the team's arena, a sign reads, "The Bulin Wall." With every save he makes, a fan hangs a brick next to it.
"People were questioning [Khabibulin] toward the end of the year," St. Louis said. "He took it upon himself to play better. We'd rather have Habby hot now than hot at the end of the regular season. This is the time to be hot, and he definitely is. He's given us a chance to win every game, and he's won some games for us. That is what you need in the playoffs."
Fredrik Modin (five goals, six assists) and St. Louis (four goals, seven assists) are among the league leaders in playoff scoring. Richards (three game-winners) and Lecavalier (five goals, two assists) also rank among the top 20 playoff scorers. This is despite the fact that Tampa Bay has needed just nine games to dispatch the Canadiens (four games to none) and the New York Islanders (4-1) in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company