Lightning's quick turnaround, championship surprise coach

Wednesday, June 9, 2004

TAMPA, Fla. -- For the last 10 years, there was no room for the little guys in the Stanley Cup finals.

The list of champions was a familiar mix of big-budget and top-talent teams: Detroit (three times), New Jersey (three times), Colorado (twice), Dallas and the New York Rangers.

There were plenty of stars and familiar story lines, but not much unpredictability. Can the Devils win again with their trap? Is this Scotty Bowman's last Cup? Is Patrick Roy the best goalie ever? Brett Hull, are you here again?

The newly minted champion Tampa Bay Lightning changed all that, and in an interesting bit of timing, did so just as the other small- and midmarket teams head into the NHL's labor talks looking for a much better deal.

Under general manager Jay Feaster, just three years removed from running a minor league team in Hershey, Pa., and coach John Tortorella, who was passed over by bigger franchises, the Lightning developed a plan to compete and stayed with it.

The only surprise was how fast it all came together, just a year after the Lightning won a playoff series for the first time.

"I still can't figure it out, how quickly it happened for us," Tortorella said after a Cup-clinching 2-1 victory over Calgary in Game 7 Monday night.

Goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, once so erratic he was seen as more of a problem than a solution, thinks he knows what did it: Doing nothing.

Rather than dismantling the team when they took over, Feaster and Tortorella made a few moves, such as acquiring Ruslan Fedotenko in a much-criticized trade with Philadelphia.

Mostly, they waited for players such as Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Fedotenko, Pavel Kubina, Khabibulin and Brad Richards to gain confidence and grow comfortable with one another.

When they all arrived about the same time, the Lightning did, too.

St. Louis was the regular-season scoring champion and won the pivotal Game 6 in Calgary with an overtime goal. Lecavalier made a dazzling pass that led to the second of Fedotenko's two goals in Game 7.

"I think the most important thing was that the core of the players stayed the same," said Khabibulin. "A lot of the guys matured and became very good players."

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