TAMPA — As the Lightning battle for a playoff spot heading into the final 16 games of the regular season, the franchise will look back this weekend to the greatest season in team history.
Tonight's game against New Jersey kicks off a reunion weekend for returning members of the 2004 Stanley Cup championship team, with the 10-year anniversary of the Lightning's championship run to be celebrated later this summer.
Several players will be in Tampa this weekend to reminisce about that championship season, culminating on Monday when the team is recognized as the Lightning host the Vancouver Canucks and former Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella.
It doesn't take much to rekindle memories of an unforgettable season that seems so fresh, despite the decade that has passed.
“They show old playoff games on NHL Network quite a bit, and occasionally, if the game is on and I have nothing to do, I will watch it and relive the (playoff) run,'' said former goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who has missed most of this season with the Chicago Blackhawks becase of a knee injury.
“That was a lot of fun. It feels like it hasn't been that long ago, but at the same time it was 2004, so it's been quite a bit of time. When I start thinking about it, it only makes me feel worse because time flies so quick.''
Of the 24 players from that championship team who have their names etched on the Stanley Cup, only six remain active in the NHL: Brad Richards (N.Y. Rangers), Dan Boyle (San Jose), Vinny Lecavalier (Philadelphia), Marty St. Louis (N.Y. Rangers), Cory Sarich (Colorado) and Khabibulin.
A few others continue to play in Europe: Ruslan Fedotenko, Eric Perrin, Dmitry Afanasenkov and Martin Cibak. The rest of those players who will “walk together forever,'' as Tim Taylor stated, have moved on to post-playing careers or just are enjoying retirement.
But no matter where they are now, that championship season comes to mind in many ways.
“Even if you win somewhere else, it will never be that,” Richards said. “No matter what, it will always be different. But you are always trying to compare ... You are always trying to draw things from it and how special it was. Hopefully, I win again, but nothing will ever top the first one.''
Veteran defenseman Darryl Sydor, who won the Stanley Cup with Dallas in 1999, joined Tampa Bay in a midseason trade from Columbus. It didn't take long for him to understand what he was jumping into when he stepped into the locker room.
“It was a really good team that was on a great roll and you just wanted to be a piece of that puzzle,'' said Sydor, now an assistant coach with the Minnesota Wild. “I walked into a room that, though there was a lot of coaching go on, they were on auto-pilot. They had their mojo going and you didn't want to (mess) it up by being an outsider coming in.
“I look back at it as a time I could sit back, play and watch younger players evolve, and that's where I took a bit of a leadership role. But it was obviously a lot of fun. It's been 10 years, but it seems like it was yesterday. When you look back at the group we had and the staff we had, it's always something to cherish.''