A Bolt From the Blue
"It's fun hockey, exciting hockey for the all fans," Kubina said. "We are not waiting for anything. We go after the other team. We are a very, very fast team and we're skilled, and that shows."
One of the team's most celebrated players is perhaps the most unlikely of stars -- St. Louis, an undrafted 5-foot-8, 180-pound winger who was claimed off Calgary's scrap heap three years ago. All the 28-year-old MVP hopeful has done with his opportunity in Tampa Bay is lead the league in scoring during the regular season with 94 points, which is also a Lightning record.
St. Louis, a flashy stick handler and shifty skater, embodies Tampa Bay's exciting style of play. In the era of defensive schemes designed to limit offensive flow, the Lightning employs an aggressive forecheck system, which is predicated on using speedy forwards to pressure opposing defensemen into making poor decisions with the puck. Also, the Lightning defensemen always have the green light to join the rush.
"We play to our strength," St. Louis said. "We're not playing that way to entertain the fans. We play that way to utilize our speed."
Another component that has contributed to the Lightning's turnaround but has often gone unnoticed is the veteran leadership of Dave Andreychuk, the team's 40-year-old captain, and Tim Taylor. They were brought in three years ago to help the younger players mature on and off the ice. When Tortorella and Lecavalier traded barbs through the media after a loss in December, it was Andreychuk who helped restore peace.
Andreychuk also instituted some new rules in the locker room, one of which involves the team's lightning bolt logo emblazoned on the carpet. Players, coaches, media and anyone else is subject to a $50 fine if they step on it. It wouldn't be such a big deal if the logo weren't 10 feet by 10 feet, and in the middle of the room.
"When Tortorella brought Dave and I in, he talked to us about helping the young guys understand that the difference between winning and losing isn't that big," Taylor said. "But it's not all about Dave and I. These guys have come into their own. They have figured out how to win, and once you start winning, it's contagious. We're confident now. We expect to win."
One thing that hasn't changed much, however, is the Lightning's struggle to remain a viable business. The team says it has lost $50 million the past four years, despite a $35 million payroll that ranks among the league's bottom one-third and a steady rise in attendance the past few years. But only one of the Lightning's five home games in the playoffs was sold out. And city officials are worried the team may bolt Tampa without government assistance, according to reports in local newspapers and on television.
If Tampa Bay advances to the Stanley Cup finals, the Lightning may break even for the first time because of the increased revenue from playoff ticket sales. But that doesn't mean anything for the long-term financial health of the franchise, which has the worst community sports franchise deal in Tampa, if not the country, according to team officials.
The Lightning pays property tax on its building while the NFL's Buccaneers, Major League Baseball's Devil Rays and the minor league Yankees team in Tampa do not, a team official said, adding the city also gets all game-day parking fees at the St. Pete Times Forum, where the Lightning plays, while other local teams get a share of parking revenue. The team wants about $5 million in cash and tax breaks from the city and county, said Bill Wickett, senior vice president of communications for the Lightning.
The franchise's financial uncertainty seemed to be the furthest thing from the Lightning players' minds this week as they remained upbeat and loose in the run-up to the series against the Flyers.
"We've matured together this season," St. Louis said. "This is neat for all of us. This is where we want to be right now. It's a lot of fun when you're winning."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company