Lighting the Lamp - with Rick Ackerman
The new-look St. Louis Blues host the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight after a difficult three-game road trip which featured an eight period scoring drought, ending with a four goal third period in Phoenix to salvage two points and the Central Division lead. It has been just over three weeks since the Blues last played at home, and fans in St. Louis are more than happy to welcome new-comers Ryan Miller and rambunctious forward Steve Ott from Buffalo as Blues' management upgrades the roster in anticipation of a division title and smoother sailing during the playoffs into the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Lightning flashes into town struggling to catch Boston in the tight Atlantic Division race and keep up with Montreal and Toronto while maintaining a lead over Detroit, only four points behind. And Ottawa is still in contention for a playoff slot, only three points behind the Red Wings. Aided by a good offense, ranked 11th in the league, and a solid defense behind goaltender Ben Bishop, also ranked 11th league wide, Tampa Bay has exceeded expectations so far this season and will most likely qualify for the playoffs under GM Steve Yzerman and Coach Jon Cooper.
The Lightning took the ice for the first time in 1992 as an expansion franchise. There were two groups from the Tampa/St. Petersburg area (there is no municipality known as "Tampa Bay"; rather, it is a metropolitan region that includes the cities of Clearwater and Bradenton) that vied for the NHL franchise. The losers were Jim Rutherford and Peter Karmanos, who went on to birth the Hartford Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes. The winners were the Esposito brothers, Phil and Tony, both former star players, both elected to the HHoF. The Espositos were backed by a consortium of Japanese business owners headed by Kokusai Green, a golf course and resort operator. A relatively unknown fact is that one of the limited partners of the group was George Steinbrunner, a Tampa resident who also owned the New York Yankees. Phil Esposito installed himself as President and General Manager, Tony as Head Scout, and former Blues player Terry Crisp (proud owner of three Stanley Cup rings) as Head Coach.
Tampa Bay shocked the hockey world by smashing the Chicago Blackhawks in the home opener in October, 1992 behind little-known center Chris Kontos' four goals. The Lightning shot to the top of the Norris Division, yet they could not maintain the lead under the worst travel schedule in the NHL and eventually finished last behind Chicago, Detroit, Toronto, St. Louis and Minnesota. Tampa Bay did manage to escape the Western Conference basement as the lowly San Jose Sharks took that dubious feat, almost 30 points behind the Lightning. A switch to the Eastern Conference the following season coincided with a change of venue as the Thunderdome (Florida Suncoast Dome) became the new home of the Lightning instead of the tiny (11,000 capacity), antiquated Expo Hall on the Florida State Fairgrounds. Nevertheless, Tampa Bay finished last in the Atlantic Division.
After their fourth regular season, the Lightning qualified for the playoffs. Although they lost the opening round in six games to the Philadelphia Flyers, the season was deemed a success, especially when a crowd of over 28,000 jammed the Thunderdome for a playoff game against the Flyers. With another new home, the Ice Palace (now the Tampa Bay Times Forum), in 1996, the Lightning appeared to be a contender, but devastating injuries to star players dashed hopes and Tampa Bay narrowly missed the playoffs. They would not qualify for another eight years as things went from bad to worse. The franchise was on the verge of bankruptcy and rumors abounded that the team was part of a money laundering scheme involving the Japanese Yakuza crime syndicate. The IRS nearly slapped a lien of almost a million dollars on the operation for back taxes.
Finally, in 1998, the team was purchased by insurance tycoon Art Williams, who replaced the Espositos with Jacques Demers, a former Blues coach, who became both GM and Head Coach in charge of hockey operations. However, Williams did not last long and sold the team at a huge loss in 1999 to Detroit Pistons owner William Davidson, who installed Tom Wilson as President and Rick Dudley as the new GM and former player Steve Ludzik as Head Coach replacing Demers. Abject failure on the ice led to yet another coaching change when John Tortorella took over in 2001.
Under Tortorella it took another year for Tampa Bay to attain respectability. With Nikolai Khabibulin starring in net and forwards Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis, Fredrik Modin and Dave Andreychuk racking up points, the Lightning won the Southeast Division. After defeating Washington in the opening round, Tampa Bay lost the next series to New Jersey, eventual Stanley Cup winners in 2003. The following season the Lightning thundered through the regular season finishing first in the division and second over all in the entire league. They won the opening series in five games over the Islanders and then swept Montreal, defeating Philadelphia in the Conference Finals in seven grueling games. It took seven games to defeat Calgary and win the Cup. Richards won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and Tortorella earned the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.
Let's provide a warm welcome for Miller and Ott tonight on a cold, arctic night in St. Louis and rock the TradeStocks center in anticipation of a blazing hot streak that will see the Blues go marching in to the playoffs focused on the prize awaiting this summer.