Franchise Best: Tampa Bay Lightning 2003-04 Season

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TAMPA, FL - JUNE 7: Martin St. Louis #26 of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrates with the Stanley Cup in the locker room after defeating the Calgary Flames in game seven of the NHL Stanley Cup Finals on June 7, 2004 at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Florida. The Lightning won the Stanley cup by defeating the Flames 2-1. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The Franchise Best Series comes to you to dive into the all-time best single season for every organization. This, of course, includes post-season results. Join us for a look back at some of the most memorable moments in each franchise’s history. Here is the Tampa Bay Lightning best season.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have been a top contender in the NHL in recent years. Offensive stars like Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov have led the team to some of the best seasons in team history. Despite how strong they’ve been, no season in Tampa history has been as prominent as the 2003-04 season. The team overcame expectations and, on the backs of multiple All-Star players, won the franchise’s only Stanley Cup to date.

Tampa Bay Lightning 2003-04 Season

Previous Season and Off-Season Additions

In the 2002-03 season, the Tampa Bay Lightning stomped their way to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, before being eliminated by New Jersey Devils. Following this season, the Bolts didn’t make many major deals. As a result, a lot of fans didn’t expect the 03-04 team to end up in the Stanley Cup Finals.

In the off-season, the most notable positive for the Lightning was the signing of Brad Richards. The two parties agreed on a new contract, Richards’ first contract after his entry-level deal. It was a three-year deal that paid Richards a modest $1.934 million a year.

The team also acquired Cory Stillman from the St. Louis Blues during the 2003 NHL Draft. The Blues only got a second-round pick in exchange, which they used to draft David Backes. Stillman was a free agent that the Bolts went on to sign in August. He went on to have the best season of his career with Tampa. He placed second on the team in scoring, setting a career high points and assists.

The team also re-signed most of their own free agents. They only lost four players to free agency. Besides Richards and Stillman, Tampa also re-signed Dan Boyle, their top defenseman, and Dave Andreychuk. They did suffer one big loss though. Vaclav Prospal, who scored 79 points in 2002-03, left for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.

Heading into the season, the Stanley Cup had spent the last nine seasons with just four teams, Detroit, Dallas, Colorado, and the defending champs, New Jersey.

Regular Season

Throughout the 2003-04 season, the Bolts proved to be dominant offensively. The Lightning ranked third in the league in goal differential. At the end of the year, Tampa Bay ended up third in the league in goals-for with 345. Five players scored over 50 points, and three had over 75. Goaltenders Nikolai Khabibulin and John Grahame also had very strong years. Khabibulin played in his fewest games as a Bolt, showing the team’s trust in Grahame as their backup. Khabibulin set a record of 28-19-7 and Grahame went 18-9-1.

A star-studded offence mixed with strong goaltending led the Bolts to the top spot in the Eastern Conference, scoring two more points than the second place Boston Bruins. Tampa was also the only team from their division to make the playoffs.

Leading Scorers

Martin St. Louis led the team in scoring with a league-high 94 points. He scored 38 goals, good enough to tie him for second in the league, and 56 assists, which tied with Scott Gomez for the top spot.

St. Louis was a force to be reckoned with all season. Even on the penalty kill, the undersized St. Louis was a great scorer. He led the league in short-handed scoring by three goals, with a total of eight.

The 03-04 season was the first time St. Louis scored more than 90 points in a season. It was also his career high at the time, (he tallied 102 points two seasons later). He had multiple accolades at the end of the year, including an appearance on the first All-Star team.

As for awards, St. Louis won the Hart Memorial Trophy, the Lester B. Pearson Trophy, and the Art Ross Trophy. He also finished third in voting for the Lady Byng Trophy and the Selke Trophy.

Players like Stillman (80 points), Richards (79 points) and Vincent Lecavalier (66 points) also produced strong numbers for Tampa this year. Still, the team wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far without the explosion of scoring from Marty St. Louis.

In-Season Additions

Tampa made a handful of moves involving minor-league players throughout the year but kept their NHL group intact. The only made one deal involving NHL players. In that deal, they sent away 21-year-old Alexander Svitov, who had played 11 games and scored 3 points. Svitov went to the Columbus Blue Jackets along with a third-round pick in the 2004 NHL Draft. In exchange, the Bolts brought in 31-year-old defenseman Darryl Sydor and a 2004 fourth-round pick. Sydor went on to score seven points in 31 games.

Playoff Performers

The top line of Richards and St. Louis and Fredrik Modin proved very effective in the playoffs. Richards was the star-of-the-show, though. He scored 26 points in 23 games throughout the post-season, a stat that would earn him the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Playoff MVP. His 26 points were two points more than St. Louis scored. The two ranked first and second, respectively, on the playoff scoring leaderboard. Modin scored the third most points on the team with 19.

Lecavalier was criticized for not scoring a single point in the Bolts first round series with the New York Islanders. Despite this, the Lightning would take the series in five games, led by Richards and St. Louis. Lecavalier would get a jump from scoring some important points in the Bolts second-round sweep of the Montreal Canadiens. He would go on to score nine goals and 16 points in the playoffs, including some big points in later rounds.

After two relatively easy rounds, the Lightning would face stiffer tests in the Conference Final and Stanley Cup Final. First up were the Philadelphia Flyers. The teams would exchange wins all series, with neither club able to win two games in a row. Game 7 was a close, hard-fought contest, with two goals from Modin proving to be the difference in a 2-1 victory.

Stanley Cup Final

The surprising Calgary Flames, led by Jarome Iginla and Mikka Kiprusoff, were the opponents in the Stanley Cup Final. The series started off poorly, with Calgary taking Game 1 in Tampa Bay with a 4-1 win. The Lightning would tie the series with their own 4-1 win in Game 2.

One of the series more memorable moments occurred in the first period of Game 3 as Iginla and Lecavalier fought. This seemed to spark Calgary who rode a 21-save shutout by Kiprusoff to a 3-0 win. The Lightning would respond again, with Khabibulin stopping 29 shots, and Richards scoring the only goal in Game 4.

The Flames would put the Lightning on the brink with a 3-2 overtime win in Game 5. Oleg Saprykin scored the winner for Calgary.

Game 6 was a tense and controversial affair. The Flames believed that Martin Gelinas scored the go-ahead goal in the third period, but video replay was not used. The game would go to double overtime when St. Louis’ goal would send the game back to Tampa for a one-game winner take all event with the Cup on the line.

Game 7 was a defensive battle, with the teams combining for just 32 shots. Ruslan Fedotenko broke through for a goal in the first period. In the second period, Lecavalier made a brilliant play, setting up Fedotenko for his second of the game and doubling the Tampa lead. Craig Conroy got one back mid-way through the third period, but the Lightning would hold on to win the Stanley Cup.

End Result

The end result of the 2003-04 season was, simply put, the best in franchise history. They had amazing years from their All-Stars and even managed to pull out high scoring totals from Stillman and Modin, who both set career highs in the 03-04 year. Like most teams covered in the Franchise Best series, the 2003-04 Tampa Bay Lightning roster was a well-rounded group with a knack for scoring.

Even when they were down a man and forced onto the penalty kill, the Bolts stars were able to sneak goals in. Nothing could stop the team, even a strong Philadelphia Flyers team, who they beat in a Game Seven in the Conference Finals, or an even stronger Calgary Flames team who again took Tampa to a Game Seven. After a few years of grinding to the top of the leaderboards, the 2003-04 Lightning showed their determination and clawed their way to the only Stanley Cup in team history.

The team was the last in NHL history to win the Cup before the introduction of the salary cap. The Bolts did not get the opportunity to defend their title in 2005 as the season was cancelled by a year-long lockout. By the time the 2005-06 season started, there were changes aplenty across the NHL, including Tampa’s loss of key players in Stillman, Andreychuk, Boyle and Khabibulin.

 

Main Photo:
Embed from Getty Images

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