Well, it is hard to believe there have already been 20 years of Lightning hockey.
As I look back through the years, one game in particular comes to mind.
If I had to choose, the most memorable game I ever played in with the Lightning has to be the first-ever playoff game here in Tampa Bay back on Apr. 21, 1996 at the Thunderdome in St. Petersburg.
Our opponent in that first-ever playoff series was the much-hated Philadelphia Flyers with Eric Lindros and his “Legion Of Doom” line of that also featured John LeClair and Mikael Renberg. Adding to the challenge that night was the presence of Ron Hextall in goal.
But after going up to Philadelphia for the first two games of the series, our team was returning home with the momentum following Brian Bellows’ overtime winner in Game 2, which evened the series at one game apiece.
There were three days between Games 2 and 3, and I know myself and the rest of the guys were excited to play Game 3 at our home rink. Keep in mind, this was set to be the first-ever postseason game played in team history, so it was exciting because everyone around town including the fans and media were advertising the matchup as the BIG playoff game for days in advance leading up to the puck drop. With a NHL-record crowd of 28,000, the Thunderdome was rocking.
In fact, I still remember walking out for warmups like it was yesterday. The noise level was incredible and all of us were so excited to play in front of our home fans.
The game itself was intense and so exciting with both teams tied in the best-of-seven series, and with a huge crowd and the noise they brough, we were all pumped up and ready to play.
After all the pre-game pomp and circumstance often associated with a big debut, we scored first as Petr Klima beat Hextall while on the power play. I remember at the time that was a big goal for us, as we wanted to score first and get the crowd screaming and use them to our advantage at our home rink.
We knew the Flyers would not lie back as they then scored two unanswered to take a 2-1 lead heading into the first intermission.
I vividly remember the second period was very fast and physical with lots of big hits. That specifically had always been the way the Flyers played. It was their brand of hockey some might say. As one of the leaders on that team, I remember telling the guys to match their intensity, as I knew we would have to seeing that we were already behind at the start of the second period.
The guys played hard, but yet again Philadelphia scored to go ahead 3-1. We knew the next goal was important as a 4-1 lead for them might be too hard to come back from, especially against a very strong Flyers teams with a proven goaltender in net.
Sure enough, Rob Zamuner scored two goals in succession – the first coming shorthanded, while the second proved to be a great individual effort to tie the game at 3-3.
I couldn’t believe it. The building was electric and the crowd was going crazy. We were right back in it, which I think surprised the Flyers, and who knows, maybe even some of the fans in attendance that night.
Now with the momentum on our side heading into the final 20 minutes, Lindros helped his team take back some of that steam by scoring to break the tie just over three minutes in. We knew this was going to be a battle going in, as evidenced by the first two games of the series, but that one period alone felt like it carried so much more significance that maybe even an entire game.
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Jeff Reese, our goaltender, stood strong as the Flyer peppered him with shot after shot. We knew we needed just one good chance to score and the game would be tied at four.
With under two minutes to go in the third, head coach Terry Crisp called for a timeout in the Philadelphia Flyers zone. I don’t think there was any Lightning player, coach, trainer or assistant who didn’t know that this was our one big chance to tie the game. We also were aware that we might only get one good chance to score.
I went out on the ice, and as the play developed, I passed the puck to Alex Selivanov, who then made a great second pass to Bellows and he beat Ron Hextall with a great shot to the top corner. As I recall, it was exactly how Crispy drew it up.
The game was tied at 4-4 and the crowd was going crazy. At least for that one night, no one would be more resilient than us, no matter the outcome. Regardless of whether we were going to win or lose that game, the fans got a show that night.
As the final horn of regulation sounded and we walked into the dressing room to prepare for overtime, we all talked as players and knew how big the next goals was. Although the stakes were high and there was pressure, no one really talked about it. Everyone in that room knew they just needed to play their game and to look for one good opportunity. We had already come back twice just in the 40 minutes prior, so at the time, there wasn’t much we felt we couldn’t do in order to win this game.
Sure enough, Selivanov scored just 2:04 into overtime and the place erupted into a frenzy as we won the game 5-4 in the extra session to take a very surprising 2-1 series lead. That goal finished off an exciting game that culminated with a huge crowd going insane and cheering for us after the big win.
That is definitely something I will never forget.