PONTIFICATING FROM THE SUNSHINE STATE – APRIL 4
By Leo Haggerty

MOUNT RUSHMORE – TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

First of all, and I will start EVERY article with this paragraph, sports pales in comparison with what is occurring with the Coronavirus. Hopefully, the columns that I, and the rest of our correspondents, provide you is a momentary escape from the trials and tribulations that Americans, and the rest of the world’s population, are experiencing. The COVID-19 is not a video game that you can press reset and get a new life. This is real and dangerous so, above all, be prudent and stay safe.

For a team that has only been in existence 1992, Tampa Bay has had a surprising amount of moments that could be considered Mount Rushmore worthy.  Sadly, I felt that three of the four pinnacles that would epitomize the Bolts were when the Lightning came out on the wrong side of the dash.  Enjoy.

1. WINNING THE STANLEY CUP IN 2003-04

In my mind, this is, without a doubt, the #1 moment in the 27-year history of the Lightning. I don’t think any Bolts fan will dispute that.

Now, you’re going to say that this was an easy choice because it’s the only Stanley Cup won by Tampa Bay.  Yes, it was, but the way the finals evolved will forever keep this as the top memory of the Lightning faithful.

There were three monumental moments in the seven-game marathon with the Calgary Flames.  The first, and in my opinion, probably the most important to the ultimate success  of the Bolts was, of all things, a fight between two National Hockey League future Hall of Famers.

Let me set the stage for you.  It was Game 3 with the Stanley Cup Finals tied at one game each.  The Flames superstar, F Jerome Iginla, was able to do anything he wanted in the first two contests.  At 6’1″ and 210 pounds, the Flames superstar was not only a great player but an imposing figure on the ice who wasn’t afraid to “drop the gloves” if needed.

As the series moved to Calgary, nothing seemed to change until a little over six minutes into the fray.  That’s when the Bolts Vinny Lecavlier was going to change the entire complexion of the series.

The fact is that #4 for Tampa Bay, who was not noted as being a fighter, felt it necessary to, literally, take matters into his own hands.  And did he ever.

After being roughed up by #12 for Calgary behind the net, the 6’4″ and 215 pound center decided it was time to stand his ground.  The ensuing fight, where the Bolts center held his own against one of the better pugilists in the NHL, lit a fire under his Lightning teammates.

It changed the whole mindset of the Bolts.  They stood toe-to-toe the rest of the series with Iginla and the Flames.

The second event occurred in Game Six.  With the Flames holding a 3-2 advantage and having a chance to hoist the Stanley Cup at The Saddledome, both teams came out on a mission.  Calgary to end the series and the Lightning to take the finals back to Florida for a deciding Game 7.

After 60 minutes of intense hockey, the score was knotted at 2-all.  That led to sudden death overtime.

After a scoreless first 20 minutes, F Martin St. Louis found the back of the net just 37 ticks into the second overtime.  That remains to this day as the most important goal in Lightning lore.

The final memory ties in with a personal one.  At the time, I was providing updates for a national radio station for the Bolts home playoff contest. So, here I am, sitting in the press box for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals.  You can’t call that a job but I digress.

With the Lightning clinging to a precarious 2-1 lead with less than a minute left in the third period, the radio station producer calls and asks me to take them through the end of the game.  All I could think of was don’t screw this up.

Right after I went on the air, Tampa Bay G Nicolai Khabibulin make the save of the game that would preserve the victory for the Lightning.  As the clocked clicked down to zeroes, I shouted, “Move the Lombardi Trophy over.  Lord Stanley is coming to Tampa Bay.”

They ran that statement as an intro for about two weeks.  I guess, as we say in the business, I nailed it.

That gave the Lightning their first, and so far their only, Stanley Cup.  For me, that’s the highest peak on the Bolts Mount Rushmore and I don’t think I’ll get any pushback on that statement.

2.  LOSING THE STANLEY CUP IN 2014-15

Yes, I know this is a painful memory for Lightning fans but I have to put it as one of the four Tampa Bay Mount Rushmore events.  Even though the Bolts lost, they made it back to the Stanley Cup finals and, in my opinion, had a legitimate shot a bringing the Cup to Tampa Bay for the second time.

Alas, that would not come to fruition.  After taking a 2-1 lead in the series over the Chicago Blackhawks, the Lightning offense just evaporated.  In the final three contests, Tampa Bay was beaten 2-1 twice and 2-zip in the Cup clinching Game 6.

Not a pretty memory for Tampa Bay fans.  Especially the one of G Ben Bishop and D Victor Hedman colliding that led to Chicago’s first goal in Game 6.

Still, the Bolts got there.  That’s enough for me to put that on the Lightning Mount Rushmore.

3.  LOSING THE CONFERENCE FINALS OF THE 2010-10-11 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF

This one, like the Bert Emanuel “no catch” that was a catch for the Bucs, has to go up as one of the four precipices on the Tampa Bay Mount Rushmore.  And, it’s all over how the Lightning lost the deciding Game 7 to the Boston Bruins and I believe the NHL hierarchy had a hand in it.

With the series tied at 3-3, the deciding Game 7 would be played in Boston at the TD Center.  Before that contest, the rumor floating around was that they may not be a lot of penalties called.  Let the players decide it on the ice.  That would be the only fair way.  No one would have an advantage, right?

As Bruce Willis so aptly put it in Die Hard, “Wrong answer, Hans” and here’s why.  In the playoffs, the Bolts were a power play machine. 17 of their 59 goals came with the man advantage.

The Bruins, on the other hand, struggled in 5-on-4 situations.  Boston only scored 10 of their 81 goals on the power play.

So, as I have suggested in previous columns, do the math.  The Lightning were scoring just under 29% of their goals with the man advantage.  Conversely, a  little over 12% of the Bruins goals come via the power play.

I ask you.  Would anyone have an advantage if there weren’t any penalties whistled?  Hell, yes they would.

About six minutes into the contest, our NHL expert Jim Thies sent me a text.  He simply stated that the only way there’s going to be a penalty called tonight is if someone draws blood.

Sadly, Jim’s statement was prophetic.  No penalties were called and the Bruins advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals with a 1-0 triumph.  Boston then dispatched the Vancouver Canucks in seven games.

Yes, the Lightning, just like the Buccaneers, were robbed.  Why, you ask? Let me enlighten you with my conspiracy theory.

The NHL powers that be wanted no parts of a Vancouver-Tampa Bay final.  In their minds, that was a terrible match up for television ratings and the league office wanted no parts of that.

I’d bet the house payment that the game officials were “strongly encouraged” not to call any penalties especially on Boston.  That would put the Bruins at a disadvantage.  Couldn’t have that, could we?

It’s a shame another losing effort has to go up on the Tampa Bay Mount Rushmore.  With a fair shake, this could have been the second Cup for the Bolts.  We’ll never know, will we?

4.  LOSING IN THE FIRST ROUND OF THE 2018-19 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF

The final event that makes up the Mount Rushmore pinnacle is the first round total collapse last year.  The Lightning, the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, was swept 4 games to none by the 8th seed Columbus Bluejackets.  You can’t make that up.

Why, you might ask, am I putting the biggest memory of Tampa Bay futility up as one of the four top moments for the Bolts.  It rates to be up there because of what the Lightning did during the regular season.

The Lightning posted a 62-16-4 mark for the 2018-19 campaign.  That number of victories tied the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the most in league history.  The 128 points led the league by a wide margin.  An exceptional regular season to say the least.  One for the ages that should have paved the way for another Stanley Cup but it was not to be.

I won’t try to explain the unexplainable opening round exit by the Bolts.  I have my opinion on that but I’ll save it for another column.

There you have it.  My four Tampa Bay Lightning Mount Rushmore moments.

Do you agree?  If you don’t, let me hear what yours are.