Moving forward in the Stanley Cup playoffs, The Hockey Writers will be taking a short look at the past successes of the final eight teams left in the postseason. When was the last time they reached the Stanley Cup Finals? How long has it been since they hoisted the Cup?
For the Tampa Bay Lightning, playoff success hasn’t exactly been uncommon over the last few years. Having guys like Steven Stamkos and the Triplet Line helps when it comes to spring hockey. And yet, it’s been more than a decade since the Bolts won their last Stanley Cup.
After a strong showing in the first round – without Stamkos in the lineup – where they beat the aging Detroit Red Wings in five games, the Lightning are off to a good start against the Islanders in the second round.
With that, we rewind to 2003-04 when Tampa Bay was led by Dave Andreychuk and their big three – Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards. The Bolts played 16 games in the first three rounds before taking on the Calgary Flames in the Stanley Cup Finals where the two teams battled in an epic seven-game series.
2003-04: Tampa Bay’s Regular Season
The early 2000s spelt the beginning of success for the Tampa Bay Lightning. After winning their first division title in 2002-03, the Bolts were looking to take the next step towards obtaining hockey’s holy grail.
Tampa Bay opened the season on an eight-game unbeaten streak (7-0-1) – setting the precedent for the season that was about to unfold for the Lightning. In early January they won five games in a row and had another six-game winning streak from January 22 to February 2. But it was their 11-game unbeaten streak (10-0-1) that carried from February to March that let the league know they were for real.
They finished the year with 106 points atop the Southeast Division – 28 points higher than the second place Atlanta Thrashers. On top of that, they topped the NHL’s Eastern Conference and went into the playoffs with an outstanding regular season record of 46-22-8-6 and home ice advantage.
St. Louis finished as the team’s top scorer with 94 points (38g-56a) in 82 games. He won the NHL’s Art Ross Trophy, Hart Memorial Trophy, Lester B. Pearson Award and tied (with Vancouver’s Marek Malik) for the NHL’s Plus/Minus Award.
Richards won the league’s Lady Byng Memorial Trophy and the always vocal John Tortorella won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s best coach for his work behind the Bolts bench. But for them, the work didn’t end with the regular season. Their second straight division title simply wasn’t enough. What they wanted was a chance to play of the Cup.
2003-04: Tampa Bay Lightning’s Road to the Cup
As the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, the Lightning (ironically) took on the New York Islanders in the first round of the 2003-04 playoffs. While the two teams swapped 3-0 victories in the first two games, the Lightning took full charge of the series winning the final three games and only allowing two more goals over that time. Nikolai Khabibulin recorded three shutouts in their first-round series and the Lightning went on to win the series 4-1.
Following their bout with the Islanders, Tampa Bay suited up against the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Khabibulin started the series off with his fourth shutout of the playoffs, but it was Lecavalier and Richards who came up big in Games 3 and 4 for the Lightning helping them to a four-game sweep of the Habs.
Life wasn’t as easy in the Eastern Conference Finals, however. For the second time in franchise history, the Bolts found themselves taking on the Philadelphia Flyers (a team that knocked them out of the 1996 playoffs). It was the first time Tampa Bay made the Conference Finals since they came into the league – but statistically speaking, they were the favourites coming into this series.
They won all four meetings between against Philadelphia during the regular season and had home-ice advantage for the series. The two teams alternated wins the entire series with the Lightning coming out on top after seven games.
With that, Tampa Bay was on to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in their short history where they met up with the unlikely Western Conference champion Calgary Flames. The two franchises battled it out in an extremely close series that saw each goaltender record shutouts in Games 3 and 4 (Khabibulin’s fifth shutout of the playoffs).
Calgary won Game 5 taking a 3-2 series lead giving them a shot at the Cup. But after a 3-2 win in a Game 6 double overtime thriller, and a defensive battle with the Lightning taking Game 7 2-1, Tampa Bay was crowned the Stanley Cup champions for the first time (and only time thus far) in franchise history.
Richards led the way in the playoffs for the Lightning with 26 points (12g-14a) in 23 games and took home the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. St. Louis added 24 points (9g-15a) and Khabibulin finished tied for second in goals against average (1.71) helping the Bolts to the 2004 Stanley Cup.
While the Lightning have since gone to the Conference Finals (losing to the Bruins in 2010-11) and the Stanley Cup Finals (losing to the Blackhawks in 2014-15) they haven’t been able to duplicate their success from the 2003-04 season.
With Tampa Bay now into the second round here in 2015-16, they’re once again looking to change the tides and repeat their run to the NHL’s top award.
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Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.