Several Tampa Bay Lightning players and even more of the team’s fans know well what to expect when the New York Rangers come to town on Saturday to take on the Bolts in the season’s first meeting between the clubs.
Two of the more resounding figures in franchise history, Rangers head coach John Tortorella, as well as forward Brad Richards, both familiar faces in Tampa Bay, will return to the St. Pete Times Forum for the first time as a head coach-player tandem since guiding the Lightning to their first-ever Stanley Cup Championship in 2004. Joining them will also be Rangers wing Ruslan Fedotenko, who proved to be the hero of the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals’ Game 7 after notching both goals in the Bolts’ 2-1 decisive victory over the Calgary Flames.
Tortorella, who was named as the Rangers’ head coach on February 23, 2009, reunited with Richards after the center signed a multi-year deal with New York this past summer.
Although both have since departed the Bay Area after leading the Lightning to its most defining moment, the memories of the 2004 Jack Adams Award winner and the 2004 Conn Smythe Trophy recipient – key cogs in Tampa Bay’s championship quest – still live on.
Tortorella and Richards still each have homes in the Bay Area, and while both men continue maintain a strong presence in the Tampa Bay community, as well as in the hearts of loyal Lightning fans, it should not be overlooked just how much each contributed to the Lightning franchise during their respective tenure with the team.
Tortorella was named the fifth head coach of the Lightning on June 6, 2001, and stayed on until being relieved of his duties on June 3, 2008 after six and a half seasons. During his tenure with the Bolts, Tortorella compiled a 239–222–36–38 record and still stands today as the franchise’s most-winningest coach.
He led the Lightning to the 2002-03 Southeast Division crown and the team’s first playoff appearance since 1996 before the Bolts finally fell to the eventual Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils in the second round of the 2003 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The following year, in 2003-04,Tortorella led the Bolts to their second consecutive Southeast Division title. As a result of amassing a franchise-best 106 points, Tampa Bay earned the top spot in the Eastern Conference and defeated the Western Conference’s sixth-seeded Calgary Flames to capture the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. A few days after winning the Stanley Cup, Tortorella went on to win the 2004 Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s coach of the year.
His remarkable success behind Tampa Bay’s bench also helped him earn another distinction, as he became the winningest American-born head coach in NHL history in 2008 before being surpassed by current Philadelphia Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette.
Tortorella’s efforts on the ice, however, while certainly appreciated, were only half of what made the head coach such a colorful character.
Other than his superior hockey smarts, Tortorella also had a knack for creating some of the most wildy popular Internet sound bites, the majority of which came from his numerous press conferences and scrums with members of the media over the years. Among the most notable occurrence happened during the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals against the Philadelphia Flyers, when Tortorella barked at Flyers bench boss Ken Hitchcock through the media, instructing him to “shut your yap.”
One would be remiss, however, not to acknowledge the impact the former Lightning coach had on the development of young players at the time, including Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, and of course, Richards.
Following back-to-back 62-point campaigns in 2000-01 and 2001-02 with the Bolts, the native of Murray Harbor, Prince Edward Island, quickly developed a reputation as “the steal of the 1998 NHL Draft” after increasing his point totals in each of the next three seasons.
Perhaps Richards never proved more valuable until his performance in the 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs, where he registered 12 goals and 26 points to lead all NHL postseason skaters on his way to capturing both the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason’s most valuable player.
Even though he is no longer in Tampa Bay, Richards still holds several Lightning franchise records, including a share of the regular single-season assist mark of 68, most power-play points in a single campaign (46), most assists in a single game by a rookie (3), most goals (12) and points (26) in a single postseason campaign and most shots on goal in one playoff season (88). He also ranks third on Tampa Bay’s all-time career scoring list with 489 points and holds the same position on the Bolts’ list of all-time postseason scorers with 47 points.