Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Bolts

The Stanley Cup Playoffs start this week, so I am tempted to opine about the most rigorous and passionate and glorious-slash-devastating postseason in all of sports...but I have done that before, and to do it again would probably descend into a trotting-out of cliches and a recycling of the adjectives used earlier in this sentence.

On the other hand, this year marks the 10th anniversary of my Tampa Bay Lightning winning their first Stanley Cup, and it also marks their return to the playoffs after a two-year my fingers are itching to opine about this year's squad while looking back to the champions that took the NHL by storm a decade ago.

From the perspective of a Tampa Bay hockey fan, what better way is there to herald the arrival of the playoffs?

And from a continental perspective, what more unique way is there to herald the arrival? (Don't say "national perspective," because as you certainly know, NHL teams come from two countries, not one!)

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The 2003-04 Lightning were no flash in the pan. Nor were they one of those teams that pulls off an improbable run by getting carried on the back of a hot goalie while being outclassed everywhere else on the ice.

Team captain Dave Andreychuk holds the NHL record for most power play goals in a career, and is almost certain to make the Hall of Fame. He was 40 years old when the Bolts won it all and he accounted for 14 points during those playoffs.

Three other forwards from that team (Martin St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier, and Brad Richards) will receive serious consideration for Hall of Fame induction because of their stellar and lengthy careers.

St. Louis won that season's Hart Memorial Trophy as the league's most valuable player...and the Lester B. Pearson Award as the league's most outstanding player...and the Art Ross Trophy for leading the league in points (a feat he also accomplished last year at the age of 38).

Meanwhile, Nikolai Khabibulin is one of the greatest Russian-born goaltenders in history, widely considered to be second only to the legendary Vladislav Tretiak.

Dan Boyle has been one of the league's most dependable defensemen for more than a decade now, and Pavel Kubina is "in the conversation" about which player is the best Czech-born defenseman to ever play the game.

And John Tortorella became the first American to win the Jack Adams Award as NHL Coach of the Year.

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Of course, no team can win a championship if it does not have selfless players who fill their roles without getting headline publicity, and the 2003-04 Bolts had plenty of them.

With a lumberjack's work ethic and an uncanny nose for the puck, Fredrik Modin was the prototypical Swede. It was he who scored the winning goal in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals, and it is worth noting that two years later he helped lead Team Sweden to its first gold medal of the Olympics' "NHL Era."

Although Ruslan Fedotenko wound up with just one 20-goal season during his 12-year career, he had a knack for putting the puck in the net when it mattered most. It was he who scored both goals in the the ring-clinching, 2-1 victory in Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Finals, and he is the only player from Ukraine ever to get his name engraved on the Cup.

Then there was Tim Taylor, a gritty third-liner who was in the twilight of his career and already had a Cup to his name from his days in Detroit. He provided valuable locker room leadership by playing through pain and imparting wisdom from his prior experiences.

And there was Chris Dingman, who enjoyed doing the dirty work and didn't care who got the "front-page bold-type." Dingman is now an Emmy Award-winning broadcaster who co-hosts the best sports radio show in the Tampa Bay market and contributes commentary and interviews to Lightning telecasts on Sun Sports Network.

Plus, there was defenseman Darryl Sydor, who had won a Cup five years earlier with Dallas and was acquired at the trade deadline for the specific purpose of adding championship experience to Tampa Bay's blue line. Needless to say, he proved to be the shrewdest late-season acquisition in franchise history.

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The Bolts' playoff run was a mix of everything that goes into championships, as they dominated the first two rounds against the Islanders and Canadiens, then went all the way to seventh games in the final two rounds against the Flyers and Flames. The fact that they played both Game Sevens on home ice proved how significant it was that they finished the regular season with the league's best record.

There were both blowouts and nail-biters along the way, but as is usually the case at hockey's summit, nail-biters were far more common. The fine line between victory and defeat was evident even during the Lightning's second-round sweep of Montreal, for with 17 seconds remaining in Game Three it looked like Montreal was going to win and pull within 2-1 in the series.

Then Vinny Lecavalier tied it up with the best goal I have ever seen, lifting his stick backwards between his legs and tipping Andreychuk's shot past Jose Theodore to force overtime. Then, a mere 1:05 into the extra session, Brad Richards circled behind Montreal's goal and ended the game by intentionally banking a shot off of Theodore's skate and into the net. Just like that, what was about to be a close series became transformed into a rout. (And on an interesting side note, it is one of only two times in history that the sport's most storied franchise has been swept out of the playoffs at home.)

Moving forward, the Lightning had to survive an elimination game in the Cup Finals, when, trailing the series 3-2, they traveled to Calgary for Game Six before an eardrum-piercing crowd in the Saddledome. It went deep into double overtime before Martin St. Louis scored on a breakaway to send the series back to Tampa for the decisive Game Seven.

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When it comes to this year's Lightning, I am under no illusions that they have more than a slugger's chance of repeating the glories of that squad from a decade ago.

The 2003-04 Bolts had the best record in the NHL; a perfect blend of young guns and graybeards; a proven clutch goaltender; and a head coach who was not a newbie to the NHL.

On the other hand, the 2013-14 Bolts are extremely young; led by a rookie coach; and have shown an alarming tendency to turn the puck over in their own zone...not to mention the fact that the Boston Bruins, who eliminated Tampa Bay during its last playoff appearance, look damn near invincible.

Still, there is something very special about this team and I know they have what it takes to be a major factor in the playoffs. These Bolts have shown a ton of character in the way they have overcome adversity, some of which was self-inflicted and some of which was not (for example, I have never seen a team so continuously rise above the untimely goals-against that result from the turnovers I mentioned above).

It has been a treat to watch such a young roster keep its nose to the grindstone and find ways to win despite the departures of franchise cornerstones Lecavalier and St. Louis -- and despite the recent injury to starting goalie Ben Bishop, who is in the running for the Vezina Trophy after setting the franchise record for wins in a season.

The way the Lightning's rookies and veterans alike have embraced the guidance of first-year NHL Coach Jon Cooper shows they are focused on winning and not prone to whining.

Perhaps most importantly, going back to the matter of Bishop's recent and apparently significant "upper body injury," it is worth noting how the Lightning's goaltending is suddenly a strength after having been a glaring weakness for most of the years since Khabibulin departed.

Backup Anders Lindback was a victim of bad luck and poor defensive support in many of his appearances earlier this season, but in his three games since Bishop's injury he has given up just two goals -- and just as important, the team has rallied in front of him.

To occupy the roster spot behind Lindback, the Lightning called up Kristers Gudlevskis, a 21-year-old from Latvia who made waves in the recent Olympics when he stopped 55 of 57 shots against Team Canada -- a performance that almost resulted in a Latvia-over-Canada outcome that might have been the biggest upset in Olympic history.

When brought across the ocean this week by the Lightning, Gudlevskis responded by stopping 36 of 38 shots and defeating playoff-bound Columbus in his first-ever NHL game.

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In short, not only do I think that the Lightning's goaltending corps has what it takes to make an impact in the playoffs -- I actually expect it to make an impact.

As much as I love Bishop and the fact he is an American, a certain part of me believes it is Gudlevskis who is destined for greatness. Can he become our Brodeur, or Roy, or Plante? It is way too early to know, but I have an inexplicable kind of faith that he will become something special for us.

Of course, not everything is hunky dory in Boltsville. Ryan Malone was arrested for DUI early Saturday morning and cops found a bag of cocaine in his pocket.

Yet as disturbing as that is, and as distracting as it could be, I think the rest of the team will use the incident as another opportunity to prove its "rise above" character.

My first thought when I heard of Malone's arrest was: How the hell could you fuck up like that, now of all times!

But my second thought was: Well, maybe that explains why he's been kind of a no-show this year.

And it was followed by the thought that the team will be even better because a problem has been identified so it can be dealt with.

I do hope that Malone overcomes whatever demons put him in a jail cell, and I would be happy if he overcomes them while playing and producing during this postseason. But when it comes to this team, when I think about the resolve its players have collectively shown, I just believe in my soul that Malone's issues will not make a difference.

Go Bolts!

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