It was quite the trip down memory lane on Saturday, as the Lightning welcomed back members of the 2003-04 Stanley Cup Championship team. During the pregame ceremony, fans were treated to some of the top highlights of that club's incredible playoff run. Just as significant to that team's success, though, was the amazing stretch in the second half of the regular season that set the stage for the playoff journey that would follow.
The 03-04 team started the season with six straight wins and was 11-2-2-1 after 16 games. (This was pre-shootout, so there were four columns in a team's record. Wins, regulation losses, ties and overtime losses. If neither team scored during the five-minute overtime, the game ended in a tie and each club earned one point. Similarly, an overtime loss also was worth one point.)
From November 23 until January 2, however, the Lightning struggled. They won only four games and saw their record drop to 15-14-6-1. They wrapped up a five-game homestand on January 3 with a convincing 6-1 victory over Philadelphia. But three nights later, they opened a five-game road trip with a 5-2 loss in Ottawa. The Lightning were at 16-15-6-1.
Then came the night in Montreal that turned their season around. In a couple of interviews Andre Roy did on Saturday, he mentioned a team meeting that took place before that January 8 contest against the Canadiens. Everybody spoke up, according to Roy, including head coach John Tortorella. It had the desired effect, as the Lightning proceeded to thoroughly smother the Canadiens. The Bolts held Montreal to just 15 shots for the entire game and won, 4-1. That game was the first of a tough back-to-back. The next night, the Lightning were in New Jersey against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Devils. Despite the difficult travel circumstances, the Lightning dominated the game from beginning to end, winning (again) 4-1 and outshooting the Devils, 37-19.
From that point on, the Lightning were off and running. They sprinkled in a couple of ties and some overtime losses along the way. But beginning with that January 8 win in Montreal, the Lightning went 25-2-2-4 over the next two months. That's two regulation losses in 33 games.
What I remember about that stretch (which lasted until March 12) was how the Lightning imposed their will on the opposition every night. It didn't matter what type of team they were facing, the Lightning were able to dictate play decisively from the opening faceoff until the end of the game. They galloped to the top of the standings and ultimately secured the top seed in the Eastern Conference. That seeding gave them home ice in the two Game Sevens that they would play that spring: versus the Flyers in the Eastern Conference Final and against Calgary in the Stanley Cup Final.
In case you were wondering, what were the two games the Lightning did lose in regulation during those 33 contests? The first was a 2-1 defeat on January 17 in Sunrise against the Panthers. In that game, Florida goalie Roberto Luongo made 50 saves as the Lightning outshot the Panthers, 51-15. The other was also a 2-1 loss - it came against the Capitals in Washington on February 3. Shots in that game were 39-14 in favor of the Lightning. So it was only due to two incredible goaltending performances that the Lightning had any regulation losses at all during that dominant timeframe.
On Saturday, in reminiscing about that two-month period, Cory Sarich commented that never before or since had he ever felt as confident as a player. Either in himself or in his team. Roy expressed similar sentiments. I also recall that several years ago, John Tortorella stated that he had to do very little actual coaching during that stretch - his team truly operated like a well-oiled machine.
I wonder if the confidence gained during that time was critical in helping the group successfully handle the adversity that would strike later in the postseason, when they faced elimination on three separate occasions and won all three of those games.