John Tortorella fondly remembers the 2004 Eastern Conference Final between his Tampa Bay Lightning and his new team, the Philadelphia Flyers.
When John Tortorella met the Philadelphia media for the first time as the Flyers’ new head coach last Friday, he talked about how he’d always carried a certain fascination for the organization, even when he was coaching on the other side.
“Back in ’04 when … I was coaching Tampa and we went through Philly to win a Stanley Cup, beat Philly in the conference finals, I remember telling my wife — and I told Chuck this story — ‘Man, that is that is a place I would love an opportunity to be and coach,'” he said.
“The passion of the people, the building —everything about the city. It was really neat for me. My first meeting with Chuck when we started this, he wore a shirt with the emblem and I said ‘Man, that’s where I want to be.'”
Why did that series stand out so strongly in Tortorella’s memory?
The Early Days
Tortorella, 45, was in his fourth season behind the Tampa Bay bench when he took the Lightning to their first Stanley Cup in 2004. When he first transitioned to coaching at age 28, he had immediate success, winning a championship in his first season with the Virginia Lancers of the ACHL in 1987.
In 1989, he moved to the Buffalo Sabres organization. He spent six years as an NHL assistant before taking over the head job for the AHL’s Rochester Americans. There, he won the Calder Cup in his first season, in 1996.
After one more year in Rochester, Tortorella returned to the NHL. He worked as an assistant for the Phoenix Coyotes for two years before moving to the New York Rangers. He took over head coaching duties for the last four games of the 1999-2000 season, after incumbent John Muckler was fired.
The Rangers moved on with Ron Low as their new bench boss. In July, Tortorella landed with the Lightning as an associate coach. On January 7, 2001, with the Lightning holding a .329 points percentage and the third-worst record in the NHL, Tortorella was promoted to the head job in Tampa, replacing Steve Ludzik.
At first, there was no improvement in the standings. The Lightning managed a 12-27-1-3 record for a .326 points percentage in Tortorella’s first 43 games behind the bench, and finished the year second-last in the league.
The Atlanta Thrashers finished one point ahead of the Lightning, but won the 2001 draft lottery. They moved up to first overall, and selected Ilya Kovalchuk. Then, the Ottawa Senators took Jason Spezza. At No. 3, the Lightning selected burly Russian center Alexander Svitov. He played a total of 74 games for Tampa Bay, putting up 11 points, and played just 179 NHL games in total.
Building The Lightning
Despite the draft miss with Svitov, the Lightning roster was starting to improve. In particular, a pair of 1998 draft picks, Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards, were taking big steps forward. Also, Martin St. Louis signed as a free agent in 2000; by 2004, he was an Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner. The Lightning’s situation in net was solidified when they acquired Nikolai Khabibulin from the Phoenix Coyotes at the 2001 trade deadline. And in the summer of 2001, veteran Dave Andreychuk also arrived as a free agent. He’d go on to serve three seasons as captain.
Before Tortorella’s arrival, the Lightning had only played one postseason series in their first eight seasons of existence — losing in six games to the Flyers under coach Terry Crisp in 1996.
In Tortorella’s first full season, Tampa Bay improved by 10 points in the regular-season standings, but still fell short of a playoff spot.
But in 2002-03, things started to click. The Lightning won their first Southeast Division title with a record of 36-25-16-5 for 93 points in the regular season — a 24-point single-season improvement.
Then, they won their first playoff round in franchise history. They took out the Washington Capitals in six games before falling in five to the New Jersey Devils, who would go on to win the Stanley Cup.
Vinny Prospal, 27, led the Lightning in scoring that year with 79 points. Lecavalier and Richards, both 22, and 27-year-old St. Louis were right behind. They all cracked the 70-point plateau for the first time in their careers.
The team was starting to come together.
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The 2003-04 Season
In the 2003-04 season, the Lightning improved by another 13 points, finishing second overall. They captured their first Eastern Conference title with a record of 46-22-8-6 for 106 points while the Flyers finished atop the Atlantic Division, with 101 points.
Prospal had bolted for Anaheim after signing a big free-agent contract. But St. Louis stepped up to lead the league with 94 points. Trade acquisition Corey Stillman, 29, hit a career high with 80 points, and Richards and Lecavalier continued to chip in. Finishing third overall in scoring and third in goal differential as the dead puck era was about to come to a close, the Lightning then cruised through the first two rounds of the playoffs. They beat the New York Islanders in five games, then swept the Montreal Canadiens, before facing Philadelphia.
In their second season under Ken Hitchcock, the Flyers were making their 10th straight playoff appearance in 2004. Veterans Mark Recchi and John LeClair had carried a significant amount of the offensive load during the regular season. Robert Esche had a strong season in net, and also carried the load in the playoffs.
The Flyers started well, eliminating the defending champions from New Jersey in five games. Then, they took down the Toronto Maple Leafs in six, with Jeremy Roenick‘s overtime winner deciding the series in Toronto.
Lightning vs. Flyers: 2004 Eastern Conference Final
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final in Tampa was a defensive battle. Shots were 20-17 for the Flyers but the Lighting took a 1-0 series lead with a 3-1 win. Two nights later, Philadelphia levelled the series, jumping out to a 6-0 lead on the way to a 6-2 win. It was a lopsided outcome that included plenty of message-sending. A total of 118 penalty minutes, including seven misconducts, were handed out in the third period.
Back in Philly, ‘only’ 88 minutes in penalties were handed out in Game 3, where the Lightning cruised to a 4-1 win. And once again, the Flyers responded. Keith Primeau‘s second-period shorthanded goal proved to be the Game 4 winner, in a 3-2 victory.
Returning to their home ice at the Thunderdome, the Lightning built their Game 5 lead off three power play goals. The Flyers responded with goals from Michal Handzus and Patrick Sharp, but Tim Taylor sealed the win for the Lightning on an empty-net goal scored with 15 seconds left in regulation.
Down To The Wire
The Flyers learned their lesson. They stayed out of the penalty box in Game 6, committing just three minor penalties. But there was still one power-play goal for Tampa Bay. Ruslan Fedotenko put the Lighting up 4-3 late in the second period.
Facing elimination, the Flyers outshot the Lightning 17-5 in the third period. With 1:49 left in regulation, Keith Primeau’s ninth goal of the playoffs beat Khabibulin to tie the game 4-4 and force overtime. Then, 18:18 into sudden death, Roenick and Primeau set up Simon Gagne for the winning goal that sent the series back to Tampa for Game 7.
In front of 22,117 fans, Fedotenko opened the scoring with another power-play marker, his ninth goal of the playoffs. Fredrik Modin increased the margin to 2-0 early in the second, and while Kim Johnsson got the Flyers back within a goal, they couldn’t get any closer. Tampa Bay finished the game with a 32-23 edge in shots and a 2-1 advantage on the scoreboard. Seven games later, after taking down the Calgary Flames, they were the Stanley Cup Champions.
St. Louis would go on to win the Hart Trophy and the Lester B. Pearson Award (now the Ted Lindsay Award) as most valuable player, Richards would win the Lady Byng. And Tortorella would beat out Ron Wilson of San Jose and Darryl Sutter of Calgary for his first Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year.
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