The city of Tampa Bay might not be the one that pops to your mind when you think of hockey, or of producing a truly outstanding Stanley Cup champion. That’s what the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning were though, as the produced a great regular season and validated with a run to a championship, culminating in two consecutive seven-game series.
Tampa Bay was built on offense, with the third-best scoring attack in the league. Martin St. Louis scored 38 goals, dished 56 assists and won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP. Cory Stillman and Brad Richards were solid passers. The defense wasn’t great, but at 10th in the league it was good enough to win with, anchored by Nikolai Khabibulin in goal.
The Lightning racked up 106 points in the regular season, good enough to be the top seed in the Eastern Conference and the second-best record in the league overall. Tampa Bay then demolished the New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens in short order, losing only once.
It was when the Lightning hit the conference finals that the real battles began.
Philadelphia was the opponent in the Eastern finals, and the Flyers were the 2-seed in the East. Tampa Bay took Game 1 behind two assists from Stillman, but a poor showing from Khabibulin in Game 2 resulted in an easy Flyers’ win that knotted the series as the teams headed north.
Khabibulin bounced back with 24 saves in a 4-1 win Game 3 that reclaimed home ice for the Lightning, even after Philadelphia won the ensuing game 3-2. When the series reverted to Tampa for Game 5 it was Richards coming up big with two goals in a 4-2 victory that put the Lightning on the brink of the Stanley Cup Finals.
Philadelphia didn’t go quietly and they attacked Khabibulin with 43 shots in Game 6. The game went to overtime, but the shot barrage was too much and the Flyers won 5-4. With the money on the table for the home fans, the Lightning played a more complete hockey game in Game 7, and used a 32-23 shot advantage to survive 2-1 and win the Eastern Conference.
Tampa Bay would again get home ice for the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals, as 6-seed Calgary had made a surprise run out of the Western Conference. Khabibulin was flat for the opener though, giving up four goals on only 19 shots and the Flames took the series lead. Even though Richards and St. Louis answered with a goal and an assist apiece in a 4-1 win Game 2, the Lightning would have to again reclaim home ice advantage.
Game 3 didn’t go well, with another poor outing from the goaltender. Calgary managed only 18 shots, but won the game 3-1. Khabibulin answered with a strong performance in Game 4 and Richards scored the game’s only goal in a 1-0 win that again put Tampa Bay in the driver’s seat of a tough series after four games.
This time though, the Lightning gave home ice back immediately, in an often fatal spot in Game 5. Calgary attacked with 36 shots, including a goal and assist from Jarome Iginla, and the Flames won in overtime 3-2. Game 6 went not one, but two overtimes, as Tampa Bay fought for their lives in front of a hostile Calgary crowd. Khabibulin would deliver 31 saves, while Richards scored twice and Tampa Bay won 3-2.
It was another Game 7 for the good people of Tampa Bay, and as is often the case in sports, an unlikely hero emerges. Ruslan Fedotenko, who’d scored just 17 goals all season, lit the lamp twice in Game 7. The defense was sharp, limiting Calgary to 18 shots, and this time Khabibulin delivered in net. Tampa Bay won it 2-1, and with it was able to hoist the Stanley Cup for the home crowd.