Dave Andreychuk, the Tampa Bay Lightning's grizzled captain, skated slowly toward center ice after Saturday night's Game 7 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers to accept the Prince of Wales Trophy. He dared not touch it.
Andreychuk wasn't about to jinx himself now, not after waiting 22 seasons to reach the Stanley Cup finals, which begin Tuesday at the St. Pete Times Forum, where the Lightning will host Calgary in Game 1 of a series few could have envisioned eight months ago.
"I don't really feel relief," said Andreychuk, who, before Saturday, had appeared in 154 playoff games -- more than any other player -- without reaching the finals. "I feel excitement more than anything else; I feel excitement for what has happened to our club."
Despite the temptation to revel in the moment, Andreychuk refused. Getting there is no longer his goal. At 40, and with the possibility of a work stoppage wiping out next season, Andreychuk realizes his first chance to hoist the Cup could very well be his last. Three years ago, he watched good friend Ray Bourque help Colorado to a title in his 21st postseason. That image of Bourque, the Cup raised above his head, taking a victory lap, has lingered.
"We have worked hard to get there, but our job is not done yet," Andreychuk said. "We feel this is another step. We have to be focused. Obviously, we can enjoy [beating the Flyers], but then we have to get back to work."
The Lightning players aren't the only ones enjoying their playoff run. So is the city of Tampa, which has suddenly embraced a team it had shunned for most of its 12-year existence. Hockey is the hottest ticket in town -- if you can get one.
Less than 30 minutes after Tampa Bay defeated the Flyers 2-1, the line at the ticket booth extended around the arena. Games 1, 2 and 5 quickly sold out. The flood of phone calls from fans seeking tickets in the minutes after the game short-circuited the switchboard late Saturday night, blocking all outgoing calls for a time.
Andreychuk is a big part of the team's dramatic rise from laughingstock to contender. Although the likely Hall of Famer is no longer the offensive force he was once was, his value to this team is significant. Tampa targeted Andreychuk in the summer of 2001 because it wanted him to shepherd the team's young players, such as Martin St. Louis, Fredrik Modin, Brad Richards and Vincent Lecavalier, who had much maturing to do on and off the ice. They are on the verge of stardom.
"Dave is such a great guy," Modin said. "He has been playing such a long time and has never had this opportunity. We've learned a lot from Dave Andreychuk. Obviously, it's fun for everybody, especially Dave."
Modin scored the game-winning goal Saturday. Richards assisted on both of Tampa Bay's scores, and St. Louis also helped set up one as the Lightning vanquished one of the NHL's storied franchises, four games to three.
As for not acknowledging the Eastern Conference trophy, Andreychuk was just honoring a long-standing superstition.
"I have watched ever since I was a kid," he said. "That trophy is going to sit up in our foyer in this building. We're looking for the big one. I just felt like our job is not done."