Reunion of 2004 Cup champs gives Lightning pause to imagine possibilities

TAMPA, Fla. — Monday was a night for memories, montages and an excuse to look ahead. Before the puck dropped at Tampa Bay Times Forum, before another time when the Tampa Bay Lightning rolled toward their first playoff berth in three years, a strobe light flickered high near the roof over a black banner that stands as a standard for a young core group.

The banner reads "STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS 2004" in large, white block letters. The work behind those words was the reason so many faces from Tampa Bay’s lone title team — former captain Dave Andreychuk, former winger Andre Roy, former coach John Tortorella and others — skated onto the ice under dimmed lights to receive loud applause and red-carpet treatment before the Lightning beat the Vancouver Canucks 4-3.

How far are the younger, leaner, more nimble men who wear the lightning bolt now from matching last decade’s feat? How far are they from staging a different reunion one day to honor the grit and resilience required to claim the most difficult prize in American professional sports?

The question is hard to answer, and it stumped center Tyler Johnson while he sat at his locker earlier in the day. The goal is obvious. The route to reach it is not.

"That’s a tough question to answer," he said. "I think we’re playing well, and once you get into the playoffs anything can really happen. That’s what we’€™re going for now. We have a lot of young guys, obviously. We’re trying to get better everyday. To be a Stanley Cup champion, it requires a lot. Hopefully, we can get there. It’s just a lot of hard work."

There are a number of reasons why championship seasons happen. Most require some randomness, even luck, along with obvious markers: Trusted leadership, sound chemistry, a tested foundation.

Lightning hold off Canucks

Members of the 2003-2004 Lightning team proved that they had it all. They overcame early adversity against the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, a series that required a group meeting in the team hotel after Game 2. They overcame the Philadelphia Flyers’ physicality and edged them by one goal in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. They overcame a 3-2 hole in the Stanley Cup finals against the Calgary Flames to deliver a title to a region that learned to love hockey.

That team was different than the current group. Then, the Lightning had seven players at least 30 years old. Now, they have four. Then, the Lightning had five players younger than 25 years old. Now, they have 11.

There’s no one equation that’s a time-tested tell to spot a future champion. Teams have won with grizzled veterans, and others have won with youth. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. That’s part of what makes playoff hockey great.

Still, these different-look Lightning have something brewing, even if the product of the current vision won’€™t be seen until years into the future. Likely, their patience will payoff.

"Things can change in a heartbeat," Lightning center Steven Stamkos said. "You never know when you get into the playoffs. No one probably expected us to go to the conference finals a couple years ago (a berth in the Eastern Conference finals in 2011). We did. Once you get in, anything can happen. We have the core pieces here. You’d like to think that’s a start. You just want to get in the playoffs every year. That’s what we’€™re striving for this year."

The playoffs are almost guaranteed. Before Monday’s result, Hockey-Reference.com slotted Tampa Bay with a 95.9 percent chance of making the postseason. But the Lightning’s probability of winning the Eastern Conference was only 11.4 percent and, when winning the Stanley Cup was considered, they were given a 4.7-percent chance to parade through downtown Tampa.

Moments in Lightning History

Clearly, this team can play. Escaping a post-Olympic funk that included Marty St. Louis’ trade to the New York Rangers on March 5 has shown lasting power. So has Stamkos’ ability to transition into a captain role.

Tampa Bay gained points in its final four games of this six-game homestand. The run included eight points total after losing five consecutive from March 2-March 10. Its core will mature by the week: Goalie Ben Bishop is 27, Stamkos 24, Johnson 23, Victor Hedman 23, Radko Gudas 23.

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay’s "young core" from 2003-2004 included St. Louis (28 years old), Chris Dingman (27), Brad Richards (23) and Vinny Lecavalier (23).

Work now, reward later. Grow now, be elite in time.

"Experience is a big key," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "Sometimes, you can be so young you don’t know any better, and you play the way you play. But ultimately, teams that win have some experience. I think these guys have gained seasons full of experience just in this short term. That was helped by a lot of injuries and guys having to play a little bit above their games. In that sense, I think we have kind of accelerated our growth a little bit."

The growth comes from living situations like protecting leads and blowing them, like feeling what it’s like to win shutouts and losing in them as well. The 2003-2004 Lightning team had the perspective to crack challenges when tested. If the current core is preserved, those stars will develop the same mettle.

It doesn’t hurt to dream. Reunions are a reason to celebrate, but they’re also an opening to analyze the current landscape. Right now, the Lightning look young, skilled, promising. Like most contenders, though, they’re also flawed, as shown by their inability to beat a black-and-blue threat like the Boston Bruins in four tries.

How will all that translate in the weeks to come?

"We’ve got a great young captain, one of the best players in the world," Bishop said. "That definitely helps. You’ve got a good mix between older guys and younger guys — a lot of young talent in this room. A lot of young guys. They’re only going to get older and more mature and better."

All true. To repeat history, young faces must grow fast.

Then their standard, always present in the rafters above, will appear closer by the hour.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.