© St. Petersburg Times, published April 22, 2003
Did the Lightning gain respect with its six-game victory over the Washington Capitals in the East quarterfinals? Maybe, maybe not.
Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella said, "It's beyond me how the organization we beat can say they beat themselves, the referees and this and that and the other thing."
General manager Jay Feaster said he is sure there are some who believe the Lightning's success is a "blip." And Feaster took issue with Larry Brooks of the New York Post who wrote Monday that the Lightning "didn't have to build a championship team to win a division championship," a reference to the perceived weakness of the Southeast.
"Do I think we're gaining respect?" Feaster said. "I think the guys are earning respect from other teams in the NHL, and people within the NHL respect us. But in terms of media perspective outside our own market, I don't think there's a lot of respect for our club."
And that's not all bad going into a conference semifinal against the No. 2-seeded New Jersey Devils.
"As an athlete it's a fantastic motivation," Tortorella said. "We're the underdog, and rightfully so. Jersey has been throughout the whole year one of the best teams in the league. But we need to use it to our benefit. I still think people don't really feel we're legit. And even the team we just beat, they don't think we're legit."
"We're continuing to play," he said.
It got lost in the excitement of Martin St. Louis' winning goal and Nikolai Khabibulin's astounding goaltending, but the play of defenseman Jassen Cullimore and defenseman Pavel Kubina was integral to the series victory over Washington.
The two paired for the final four games with the primary responsibility of shutting down Jaromir Jagr. It worked. Jagr had no goals and three assists in those four games, all Lightning victories.
"It was spectacular," said associate coach Craig Ramsay, who runs the defense during games. "It's just a special thing and these guys like that challenge and opportunity. They wanted it and got it."
Special kudos to Cullimore, who played Game 6 despite 83 stitches in his lips, chin and inside his mouth after slamming facefirst into the top of the boards in Game 5.
"I really didn't overthink it," Cullimore said. "When you're playing against someone like that, you can't make yourself nervous or think too much. If I had stopped to think about it, I probably wouldn't have played the way I did. Kuby and I knew we had a job to do, and we wanted to do it."
Former Whalers coach Pierre McGuire, an analyst for TSN, Canada's equivalent of ESPN, was at Game 6 and said it was a watershed for both players.
"I've never seen Pavel Kubina or Jassen Cullimore play so well," he said. "Those kids are to be saluted for the job they did. They took the life out of Jaromir Jagr. They deserve a ton of credit."
McGuire called St. Louis "the most opportunistic player in the playoffs right now."
The right wing had five goals (including the last three winners), four assists against the Capitals and was a team-high plus-6.
"Nobody creates more opportunities for himself and other guys," McGuire said. "And he jumps on every little mistake the opposition makes and that's the sign of a great player. It's tremendously fun to watch this guy play."
He admitted picking the Capitals to beat Tampa Bay in six games.
"I didn't think the star players for Washington would get shut down," McGuire said.
He also gave thumbs-up to Tortorella for moving St. Louis to a line with center Vinny Lecavalier and Vinny Prospal. The trio scored 10 of the Lightning's last 11 goals.
"Hats off to them," McGuire said. "In-series adjustments are hugely crucial and they did it."
When a team wins a playoff series, everything's great. When it loses, life isn't exactly a bowl of cherries. After his team blew a 2-0 series lead and played to a partially empty MCI Center in three home losses, Caps owner Ted Leonsis sounded like a guy who was about to take his ball -- or, in this case, puck -- and go home.
Leonsis doubled the payroll to around $50-million since buying the team in 1998, but the Caps haven't won a playoff series since.
The Caps announced crowds of around 15,000 for Games 4 and 6, well below the capacity of 18,277. And there didn't appear to be 15,000 in the building.
"It's incredibly disappointing to have 14,000 people in the building for the final playoff game," Leonsis told the Washington Post. "So I think the market has spoken and I have some real re-evaluating to do on the kind of investments we're going to make in the team because the city didn't respond. You cannot have a playoff game with 14,000 with the kind of marketing and consumer focus that we've had."
Leonsis also blamed Washington Sports & Entertainment, which runs the MCI Center, for having to play back-to-back playoff games Tuesday and Wednesday, as well as playing on Easter.
In case you were wondering, the least that Lightning players will get from the league for their playoff success is $435,506. That is the amount given to conference semifinal losers. The money can be divided as the players see fit. Conference quarterfinal losers such as the Capitals are awarded $250,121.
Conference championship losers are given $952,835. Stanley Cup championship losers $1,549,346. Stanley Cup winners $2,261,992.
Sunshine Network will replay Game 6 of the East quarterfinals at 3 p.m. today.