April 22, 2007.
It was the last time the Lightning had played a playoff game at the St. Pete Times Forum until Monday night. That's almost four years. It seemed like 40.
The feeling was back, created by a sell-out crowd which filled the arena with noise to a drum beat.
Marty St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier are the only players left from Game 6 of the 2007 first-round series against New Jersey. Pavel Kubina played for the Lightning in the 2005-06 playoffs before signing as a free agent with Toronto.
The veteran Lightning trio finally got to hear and feel the atmosphere of playoff hockey again in Tampa Bay, where they set a team record this season with 55 points (25-11-5) at home.
“People are really into it,” Lecavalier said. “You could tell the second half of the year, starting in February when we were here for a month. We really felt at home. It’s a loud building. The fans are excited and we’re excited, too.”
Kubina spent three seasons in Toronto and one in Atlanta without suiting up for a playoff game. Before that, he played 38 postseason games with the Lightning. He was in the lineup for 22 of 23 games in the run to the Stanley Cup in 2004.
The veteran defenseman is savoring every moment.
“You’ve got to enjoy it,” Kubina said. “You never know when you’re going to get a chance to be in the playoffs again.”
Kubina couldn’t think of a better team to play his next playoff game with.
“It means a lot to me,” Kubina said. “When Steve [Yzerman] called me this summer it was an honor for me and I knew right away we had a very good team that could do a lot of damage.”
St. Louis and Lecavalier have both played 48 playoff games after splitting the first two of the first round series in Pittsburgh last week. St. Louis has 52 points and Lecavalier 35.
Kubina was asked how the two Lightning all-stars have changed since he last played with them in 2006.
“They’re getting older,” Kubina said, laughing. “They’ve done so much for this team, on and off the ice. They’re leaders. They’ve done a great job for the organization and the city.”
A little more than a year ago, St. Louis met the media after his third straight season without a playoff game. Like everyone, he wasn’t quite sure what the direction of the team would be headed with a new general manager and coach. It didn’t matter that he had another tremendous season. He said, most of all, he wanted to win again.
Soon after, Yzerman was hired as GM and Guy Boucher as coach. The course was set and St. Louis, with a four-year contract extension, was at the front of the ship with Lecavalier, heading toward the playoffs and more memories at the St. Pete Times Forum.
St. Louis took a stick to the face and had to make a trip to the dentist after his first playoff game in four years last Wednesday, but he would surely trade that for sitting home. He said it was great to play for the “big prize” again.
“To go far in the playoffs, you have to expect to get hurt,” St. Louis said. “It’s part of the game, part of the playoffs. You try and help your team win.”
Lecavalier said the last two years were tough, but he doesn’t think about it anymore. He believed in the players that were here. On the first day of practice he said, “We’re a playoff team.”
The Lightning captain wanted that feeling again -- the pressure, where every series is a mini season, the energy in the building.
“It’s everything,” Lecavalier said. “You play hockey to be in the playoffs. It’s all about setting yourself up for a run at the Cup. That’s everybody’s dream. Once you’re in the playoffs, you have a chance.”
Lecavalier, St. Louis and Kubina have that opportunity again, and the fans do, too.
“It’s a great atmosphere and it’s fun to play here,” Kubina said. “We have great fans and they’ve been awesome all year.”