When former Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Brad Lukowich walks into AMALIE Arena these days and looks up at the 2004 Stanley Cup championship banner hanging from the rafters, the memories and emotions from that magical season come flooding back.
"It's a different feeling," Lukowich said. "You really can't even explain it with words. There weren't a lot of 'I's on that team."
Lukowich sees plenty of similarities between the 2003-04 Lightning team that won the Southeast Division with 106 regular-season points and rolled through the first two rounds of the playoffs before beating Philadelphia and Calgary in back-to-back seven-game series to hoist the Cup, and the current Lightning squad that will take the ice tonight at AMALIE Arena versus the Columbus Blue Jackets, coached by John Tortorella, the bench boss behind Tampa Bay's only Stanley Cup to date.
"What I see, with what (Lightning general manager Steve) Yzerman and those guys have put together," Lukowich said, "you could be having some good conversations deep into the summer."
Lukowich along with most of his 2003-04 teammates will be in attendance tonight as the Lightning honor the 2004 Stanley Cup-winning squad, part of the organization's season-long 25th anniversary celebration. Martin St. Louis, who became the first Lightning player in franchise history to have his jersey retired during an emotional ceremony on January 13, 2017, also against Columbus, says the 2017-18 Tampa Bay team has the makeup of a contender.
"I think you've got some veterans and you've got some younger guys who are hitting their prime or really playing some solid hockey," St. Louis said. "I think they've got layers and they've got depth. That leadership piece of it is very important. They've got a great goalie. There are definitely some similarities. I think every winning team is somewhat different, but as you progress and go through it, sometimes you get closer and closer to what other winning teams have done, just the make and shape of the team. But every team is definitely a different story. These guys are on a good path right now, and they're a fun team to watch."
Lukowich and St. Louis certainly aren't alone in their thinking. Several hockey pundits have penciled this season's Lightning squad in as a potential Cup winner, and with the team off to a 10-2-2 start, the hottest in franchise history, those predictions appear to be well-founded, at least early.
Brad Richards, the 2004 Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoff MVP for Tampa Bay, says it's good for the Lightning to receive such high praise. At this point, with the resources Lightning owner Jeff Vinik has provided the team and the roster Yzerman has assembled, high expectations should be a yearly occurrence.
"That comes with the territory," Richards said. "I think that's the great thing about, when I first got here, no one ever predicted the Lightning to win anything. I think it's good for them they're getting compared to a Cup team. They're off to a good start. People are talking about winning. I don't know the team as well. The game's different, but they've definitely got the talent. I do know some of the character in there. I played with some of them in New York…I know they've got the guys that want to win. A lot of things have to come into play over the long season. I'd love to see them make a run again because this town it's so much fun to see playoff hockey here."
One thing's for certain: Ask any of the 2003-04 Lightning members how their team would fare against the 2017-18 team and their reaction is unanimous.
"We'd kill them," Lukowich said, laughing. "We've got Andre (Roy) and Dinger [Chris Dingman]. We've got the boys. We've got some big boys. They're a good team. They're a different team. It's a different game now. For us, we'd have to probably throw it in the corner and beat them up a little bit to slow them down. Any team that threw anything at us, it didn't matter who we were playing against, we knew what we could do. And if we did that right, we always had an opportunity to win. And that's so far what I've seen from this Tampa Bay team."