[NHL] On The Blue Line

First off, I know I’m not the only one that misses the old Campbell and Wales Conference stuff, right? Aside from those names looking GREAT on All-Star jerseys, they used to give the NHL some personality of it’s own with all the divisions having a name that actually meant something and weren’t based on geography. There must not be too many people who miss those days, I guess, because when the NHL changed the names from Campbell to Western Conference and Wales to Eastern Conference to appeal to a bigger fan base the entire league just hit a big BOOM, didn’t it?

Chalk it up as another brilliant NHL move.

Speaking of the NHL, I’ll toss out some well known information for some new people to take in. Most NHL fans living outside of Calgary and probably Canada were glad to see the Tampa Bay Lightning win the Stanley Cup in 2004. The thought of Tampa Bay having any sort of pro sports championship still sounds a bit awkward, but the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers set the table by winning the Super Bowl a couple of years ago, so having the Bolts win the Cup helps solidify Tampa Bay as a bigger pro sports town that previously thought of. For the NHL, the Lightning hoisting the Stanley Cup meant new blood was rising and, hockeywise, the league had garnered some spark for the first time since perhaps the New York Rangers Stanley Cup win in 1994. Of course, the momentum in 1994 all stopped due to a lockout and once again, ten years later, after a red hot Stanley Cup Finals, we have another NHL lockout. After beating the Philadelphia Flyers to win the Eastern Conference title, the Lightining defeated the Western Conference Champion Calgary Flames in Game 7 of their best-of-seven series. The Flames had a 3 games to 2 lead coming into Game 6, but their futility at home cost them Game 6 and they eventually lost on the road in Game 7.

As tradition follows, both teams shook hands at the end of the game and some guy named Brad Richards won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. When I say ‘some guy’ I mean the type of ‘some guy’ who’s team went 32-0 during regular season games in which he scored a goal in. I’m talking about the type of ‘some guy’ who’s team won every game that he scored in during the playoffs by going 9-0. That’s the kind of guy that Brad Richard is on the ice.

Not that it wants to be, but again, Tampa Bay isn’t New York or Los Angeles as far as cities are concerned, it’s not even Chicago or Philly, but the city of Tampa Bay hosts a young NHL team that can play defense and be responsible when it comes to back checking and taking care of things on their end of the hockey rink. The fact that they can run and gun with the any team in the league sort of helps out, too. They have speed, agility and above that, a handful of players who can all get 20 goals or more during a season. That means a lot when most teams in the league have adopted the clutch and grab style of play, which by all means is part of EVERY teams system, but can tend to be the ONLY part of a system for teams that lack the talent to compete against other teams with high caliber players.

The Lightning don’t have a modest team payroll, if anything they have remained patient with their young players (namely Vincent Lecavalier) and made the right trades and free agent signings when they needed to and things finally came together, unlike the team up in Boston, but that’s a WHOLE different deal.

Tampa Bay, and specifically head coach John Tortorella, wanted a good leader for a group of kids that had basically done much of nothing and the organization was able to woo NHL veteran Dave Andreychuck to sign with them. Andreychuk had made a living in the league as a top power play goal scorer and for being a tough nosed, no nonsense type of player. Most importantly, he had also been in the league for over 20 years and had never won the Stanley Cup and unless you’re Dale Hawerchuck, that’s unacceptable.

The Lightning also made a big trade, they filled a teams biggest need, they got themselves a good goaltender. Nikolai Khabibulin had been under contract to the Phoenix Coyotes, but was holding out on them and didn’t play for nearly 2 years. Finally, TB general manager Rick Dudley was able to work out a deal with Phoenix and brought Khabibulin back to the NHL as the Bolts new goalie. Having played at a high level throughout his NHL career, bringing him to Tampa Bay gave them not just a goalie, but a world class goalie, at that. ‘The Boulin Wall’ as it is mispelled on his Pink Floyd themed goalie mask, was eventually a man who helped lead the Lightning to a Stanley Cup Championship.

This team also gave a player who heights in at 5’8″ and wasn’t necessarily thought much of by anyone, Martin St. Louis, a chance and he’s served as one of the many sparkplugs this team now posseses. St. Louis won the league scoring title in 2004 with his 32 goals and 54 assists (94 points) and also won the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player during the regular season.

The Lightning came into the league in 1992 and previous to 2003, had only made the playoffs once. In ’03 they made the post-season once more and actually won a first round series by defeating the Washington Capitals, but were ousted in the second round by that year’s eventual Champions, the New Jersey Devils. It was a big step for the franchise and when they made the playoffs once more in 2004, they went all the way with it.

Things were looking good for the Lightning and to a smaller extent the NHL, who now had a hot new team to go out on the NHL city circuit and strut their stuff with a Championship banner hanging in their home building to back them up. Things have changed since last June, obviously.

The Lightning’s Conn Smythe Trophy winner Brad Richards had abdominal surgery that will have him out action for 6 weeks. Richards has been playing in Russia and despite the lack of progress in NHL labor negotations, he was flown back to the States for the surgery in hope that he’ll be back by mid-March and in time for the NHL Playoffs. Also in the meantime, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier continue to play in Sweden, but what makes anyone think that there will even be a season is yet to be found, but teams are still thinking about the small chance that my exist.

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