On Thursday night at Amalie Arena in Tampa, the Tampa Bay Lightning will begin the toughest postseason journey a team can have in professional sports. I’m talking about a two-month ordeal for the right to win the Stanley Cup in the NHL.
If a team is fortunate to last the duration and be able to hoist Lord Stanley, it will have gone through four rounds of postseason hockey and have faced four different opponents from a period that starts in the month of April and ends in the month of June.
The Lightning have hoisted Lord Stanley once in their 25-year existence. I was there to witness it, when Amalie Arena was called the St. Pete Times Forum. That fortuitous and well-earned moment occurred in the 2004 Stanley Cup playoffs.
At the end of this article, I will re-post the piece I wrote about that experience.
The Bolts have come fairly close hoisting Lord Stanley on three other occasions. Twice they were defeated by just a goal in a Game 7 on the road in the Eastern Conference championship rounds. On both occasions, the team that barely got by the Lightning ended up winning the Stanley Cup.
I’m talking about when the Bolts played the Boston Bruins in 2011 and also the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016.
The Lightning made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2015, when they were defeated by the Chicago Blackhawks in six games. If not for a couple of key injuries, the Bolts might have been able to hoist Lord Stanley for a second time in 2015.
Goalie Ben Bishop suffered a groin tear in Game 2 of the series and missed part of that game, one entire game completely and played hurt the rest of the series.
Bishop had been outstanding in the playoffs that year, as he had shut out both the Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers in a pivotal Game 7 situation when the Bolts faced them earlier in the postseason.
Even with his groin injury, Bishop still had a 2.2 GAA (goals against average) and had a .919 save percentage versus the Blackhawks.
Center Tyler Johnson, who was a Conn Smythe Trophy contender heading into the series due to his excellent play in the previous three matchups, broke a wrist early in the series with the Blackhawks.
Coming into the final, Johnson had 12 goals and nine assists. Versus the Hawks and after his wrist injury, Johnson had just one goal and one assist.
But now in 2018, the Bolts have another opportunity to hoist Lord Stanley. And based on the way the Lightning played most of the 2017-18 season in the NHL, they have a solid opportunity to do just that.
The Bolts finished the regular season this year with a 54-23-5 record, which gave them the best record in the Atlantic Division and also the Eastern Conference. The team also set a team record by finishing with 113 points.
The Lightning had a bit of a rough stretch towards the end of the season, as they were pushed hard by the Bruins (who finished 112 points).
That record means that the Bolts will have home-ice advantage against all of their Eastern Conference opponents and only two teams in the NHL had more points than the Lightning. That would be the Nashville Predators (117 points) and the Winnipeg Jets (114 points) of the Western Conference.
The Lightning certainly have the talent to win the Stanley Cup. The Bolts finished first in the Eastern Conference by scoring 3.54 goals per game and were fourth in the goals against average (2.82). That latter number went up some towards the end of the season. The defense and the goaltending have to be better if the team expects to lift Lord Stanley.
The power play for the Bolts was very solid this season, as the team scored almost 26 percent of the time, which was third in the Eastern Conference.
Offensively, the team had seven players who scored at least 50 points this season. That was led by right winger Nikita Kucherov, who had 100 points by scoring 39 goals and having 61 assists. “Kuch” also was +15.
Then there was the captain, center Steven Stamkos, who had 86 points by scoring 27 goals and having 59 assists. The “Stammer” also was +18.
Stamkos missed the last few games of the regular season with a lower-body injury, but is expected to be fine for the playoffs.
Adding to the mix in the 50 points club are center Brayden Point (66 points, 32 goals, 34 assists, +18), rookie right winger/center Yanni Gourde (64 points, 25 goals, 39 assists, +34), defenseman Victor Hedman (63 points, 17 goals, 46 assists, +32), right winger J.T. Miller (58 points, 23 goals, 35 assists, -4) and center Tyler Johnson (50 points, 21 goals, 29 assists, +3).
Just to prove how explosive the Lightning can be, the team had twelve other players with double-digit point totals. The players with at least 20 points include left winger Alex Killorn (47 points, 15 goals, 32 assists, +22), rookie defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (40 points, nine goals, 31 assists, +11), left winger Ondrej Palat (35 points, 11 goals, 24 assists, +16), left winger Chris Kunitz (29 points, 13 goals, 16 assists, +8) and defenseman Ryan McDonagh (29 points, four goals, 25 assists, -4).
You may notice that all of the players I have listed above except for two have plus-ratings. The two who have minus-ratings are Miller and McDonagh, who the Bolts acquired from the New York Rangers (34-39-9) at the trade deadline.
Playing on a team (the Rangers) which finished in last place in the Metropolitan Division of the Eastern Conference is bound to get you a minus-rating, as opposing teams will score more goals against you while you are on the ice.
McDonagh is one of the best stay-at-home defensemen in the game, while Miller has been lights out with the Bolts on offense since he has been with the team. Miller is also very good in faceoffs, which is an important skill to have, especially in the playoffs.
Besides the players I have mentioned thus far, there are a number of other players who are key contributors to the success of the Bolts. Players like right winger Ryan Callahan, defenseman Dan Girardi, defenseman Anton Stralman, defenseman Braydon Coburn, right winger Cory Conacher and rookie center Anthony Cirelli.
Holding down the fort or in this case, the goal, is Andrei Vasilevskly, who had a 44-17 record and had a goals against average of 2.62 and a save percentage of .920.
In the postseason, as I mentioned earlier, Vasilevskly and the defense in front of him have to play better than they did towards the end of the regular season. When he is on the top of his game, there are few better in front of the net than Vasilevskly.
The defense was fortified by the acquisition of McDonagh, who along with Hedman, Stralman, Girardi, Sergachev and Coburn give the Lightning solid play on the defensive end of the ice. The defense showed flashes late in the season that it can be very effective.
The defense is headed (no pun intended) by Hedman, who has become one of the very best defensemen in the NHL.
To win the Stanley Cup, the bottom line for the Bolts is that the offense has to continue to play it’s aggressive game. They have to continue to scrap and win the battles to the puck behind the net and in the corners/sides in the offensive zone.
The defense has to be more consistent and effective, as does Vasilevskly. The talent is there.
This team has a number of players who have played in the Stanley Cup Finals before. Kunitz, who the Bolts acquired this past offseason in free agency, has won four Stanley Cups, one with the Anahein Ducks and three with the Penguins.
The 2018 journey to win the Stanley Cup begins Thursday night against the New Jersey Devils at Amalie Arena. If the Bolts can win that series against a team that played them very well this past season, than the Bolts will have to get by the likes of the Bruins and the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins perhaps.
And if the Bolts can win out in the East, they could be facing a number of different teams from the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Lightning could be facing the Predators, the Jets, the two-time Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings or maybe even the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. Who knows?
But nothing will come easy. It all starts with the Devils. The Bolts know that New Jersey beat them in all three games the two teams played this season, so they know it’s important to get off to a good start at home in this series.
You have to win 16 games in the NHL postseason to win the Stanley Cup. The first four games have to be won against the Devils.
From there the arduous journey continues for the right to lift Lord Stanley. The Bolts have the talent to win the Stanley Cup this year. The team has a great coach in Jon Cooper, who is one of the very best in the NHL. “Coop” has a very skilled roster to work with thanks to the excellent work of general manger Steve Yzerman (three Stanley Cups as a player with the Detroit Red Wings and another in the front office with Detroit).
But it all starts from the top, as the Bolts have one of the best owners in all of professional sports, Jeffrey Vinik.
So, the two-month journey to win the Stanley Cup is about to begin for the Bolts. As I mentioned earlier in this article, I am now going to re-post the piece I wrote about when the Lightning last won Lord Stanley.
Here’s hoping history repeats itself again for the Lightning this upcoming June and that the Bolts can skate around the ice with Lord Stanley for the second time in the history of the franchise.
Here is the my Stanley Cup story from 2004:
The Stanley Cup run in 2004 was something truly unforgettable. I was fortunate enough to go to one game in each playoff series in that run, and the Bolts won each time I was there.
The Lightning started their trek to Lord Stanley by facing the New York Islanders in the first series. The Bolts had a 3-1 series lead as they played Game 5 at the St. Pete Times Forum. I was there with a couple of buddies and the Lightning had a chance to clinch the series. Nicolai Khabibulin had been terrific in goal all series long, as he had three shutouts going entering the game.
Game five went to overtime, and Marty St. Louis was “Mr. Clutch” again and won the game with a fairly long slap shot from the left side. The crowd went wild. It was great to be there as the teams did the handshakes at the end of the game, which is a custom in the NHL after a playoff series ends.
Thanks to my friends at 620 WDAE, The Sports Animal, I had tickets to Game 1 of the next series vs. the Montreal Canadiens. My most vivid memory before the game was a couple of mouthy Montreal fans who kept telling anyone that would listen that Bolts fans did not know hockey and that they were the resident experts.
The Lightning ended up winning Game 1 as Vinny Lecavalier had two goals and an assist in a 4-0 whitewash. My buddy and I saw the same two mouthy Canadian fans after the game in the plaza, but they were hightailing out of there in a hurry. We also ran into another obnoxious Canadiens fan a little later, but after I told him to “Shut your yap” John Tortorella style (okay, there were other colorful words used), the guy meekly went away.
The Lightning ended up sweeping the Habs four games to zip in the series, including a fantastic finish in Game 3 in Montreal, when Vinny Lecavalier scored his fifth goal of the series with 16.5 seconds left to force overtime. Brad Richards then won it in overtime to shock the crowd as the Bolts won 4-3. The Bolts then finished off the Habs 3-1 two nights later.
The next series was against the tough Philadelphia Flyers for the Eastern Conference crown and the right to play for the Stanley Cup. I went to Game 1 with friends, all big Lightning fans, but a couple were former Flyers fans, ironically. As one expected, the Flyers fans in attendance at the Forum were loud and obnoxious, but the Bolts and their fans had the last laugh as the Lightning won 3-1.
The rest of the series was a knock-down, drag-out type of war. The Flyers were led by Keith Primeau. Richards paced the Bolts with two game-winning goals in the series. The Lightning ended up winning in seven games, after an excruciating loss in Game 6 at Philly, losing 5-4 in OT, in a game the Bolts should have won.
The Lightning came back to win game seven at the Forum by a score of 2-1 as Khabibulin was brilliant again. The Lightning now would be playing for the Stanley Cup championship.
The Stanley Cup
The Bolts’ opponent was the tough Calgary Flames, who were lead by Jarome Iginla and goalie Miikka Kiprusoff. But nothing was easy in this series, as the Bolts lost game one at home 4-1, but bounced back to win by the same score as Khabby was excellent, and Richards played lights out again.
Kiprusoff shut out the Bolts 3-0 in Game 3 and the Lightning had their backs to the wall going into Game 4. But once again, Khabibulin was phenomenal, as the Bolts won 1-0 as Richards again scored the game winning goal. Also, this game also had the moment when Lecavalier had his head rammed into the side glass by Calgary’s Ville Nieminen.
That win set up Game 5 at the Forum. However, the Bolts lost 3-2 in OT, sending the Lightning to Calgary in a do-or-die situation behind three games to two. Game 6 was one of the greatest hockey games I ever saw. The Lightning ended up winning 3-2 in the second overtime, as Richards had two goals in the game, but it was St. Louis that hit the game winner in the second overtime to set up Game 7 at the Forum in Tampa.
A friend of mine was able to get his hands on some very pricey tickets for game seven, as two friends and I went to the game. As I sometimes do, I called Steve Duemig on his show on WDAE on the way to the game. Steve and I discussed the keys to the game, and that’s when I had my Nostradamus moment. For some reason, I said Ruslan Fedetenko would have a big night.
Fedetenko did have a big night, as he scored the Bolts only two goals in a 2-1 victory over the Flames. Khabby was brilliant yet again, and Richie ended up winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs. But the biggest prize was seeing the Bolts win the Stanley Cup and lifting the trophy high in the air and passing it from teammate to teammate.
Dave Andreychuk was the first to get Lord Stanley, as he had just won his first Stanley Cup after 22 years in the NHL. Then everyone else got their chance. Vinny, Richie, Marty, Khabby, Fedetenko, Dan Boyle, Fredrik Modin, Tim Taylor, Darryl Sydor and all the other members of the team all got to lift Lord Stanley and skate around. The crowd erupted when coach John Tortorella lifted the Cup.
That game had to be the biggest sports moment of my life, as I was there to witness the event in person. I have seen similar things in football and in baseball, but actually being there for a championship game, and being at home, made it so special. I was fortunate to be one of the 22,717 that night at the Forum.
The journey for Lord Stanley started on April 8, as the Bolts played their first playoff game against the Islanders. But the journey didn’t end until the Bolts had won 16 playoff games, including the last one for the right to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup on June 7. It was a two month ordeal. Some say the most difficult obstacle in all of sports.
I will always treasure the memory.