LIGHTNING 5, BRUINS 1: A sellout crowd sees Tampa Bay dominate its opener, picking up where the team left off last season.
By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published October 11, 2003
[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
Cory Stillman, left, celebrates his second goal of the night with Vinny Lecavalier in the second period.
TAMPA - There was a secret going around the Lightning locker room before Friday night's season opener against the Bruins that was so sensitive it wasn't even spoken in a whisper.
But after a 5-1 thrashing of the Bruins in front of a delirious sellout crowd of 20,454 at the St. Pete Times Forum, Brad Richards cracked.
"We're confident in our team right now," the Tampa Bay center said. "We know we're not the team that's guessing going into games. We know we can win those games."
Doesn't seem like much of a secret.
The Lightning is the defending Southeast champion and before the game raised a banner commemorating the organization's first division title.
What would have been so wrong with spreading the news?
"You don't need to," Richards said. "We'll just go about our business. We're not saying we're going to win. We're not guaranteeing it. We're just more confident than we were two years ago."
That confidence should build after the Lightning bulldozed Boston.
This was not a case of the Bruins playing poorly. This was the Lightning exerting the same furious in-your-face effort that made it such a horror for teams to play last season.
Tampa Bay scored three times in the second period to take a 4-0 lead. It scored three power-play goals, shut down three Boston chances with the man advantage and blocked numerous shots.
You want individual efforts? There were plenty.
Start with Nikolai Khabibulin. Huge. The goalie made 29 saves to begin erasing the memory of his benching against the Devils in Game 5 of the East semifinals. And he made his biggest saves early when giveaways gave Boston good scoring chances.
"We kind of started a little bit too excited and a little bit nervous," Khabibulin said. "Pucks were bouncing around. I got some shots early and was able to stop them."
Then there was Cory Stillman.
Playing with the specter of Vinny Prospal hanging over him, the left wing had two goals and an assist playing on a line with Richards and Martin St. Louis, and scored on his first shot 1:54 into the game. The power-play goal, off a nice pass from St. Louis, was the quickest tally in a Tampa Bay home opener.
Richards had a goal and two assists, which gave him 201 career points. Center Vinny Lecavalier had two assists, and left wing Dmitry Afanasenkov, who played all last season with AHL Springfield, scored his first Lightning goal since March 15, 2001.
Heck, even defensive specialist Tim Taylor got a goal to make it 5-1 with 7:27 left.
"Overall, you couldn't have written a better script," said Taylor, who, with linemates Dave Andreychuk and Chris Dingman, kept the Bruins' big line of Joe Thornton, Glen Murray and Sergei Samsonov off the scoreboard. "We just need to settle the defensive zone a little bit."
If there was one glaring deficiency it was the occasional times when Boston's forecheck got revved up and got Tampa Bay running around a bit.
That inability to get out of trouble led to P.J. Axelsson's goal that made it 4-1 at 10:10 of the third period. Mostly, though, the Lightning handled those situations by closing ranks and clogging the middle, which forced shots to come from the outside.
That is a sure sign of a maturing team, a team that has not taken the lessons learned last season for granted.
It's only one game but, other than the standings, mind-set and confidence may be the best indication of the way this team has grown.
"The team feels it can win," Lightning coach John Tortorella said. "That's a big hurdle to get over mentally, to really feel like you can win as a team. That has to happen before you can learn to win. That's where we are in the process right now.
"I think we've gained some respect in this league. But you get true respect when you are considered year in and year out a competitive team and a viable playoff team. We have just cracked the door there now. What do we do? Does it shut on us or do we kick it open again?"