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Six Days

By TOM JONES
Published May 5, 2004

Today is the 4,504th day in the history of the Tampa Bay Lightning, dating to the Dec. 6, 1992 afternoon when the NHL board of governors awarded Tampa Bay an NHL franchise.

Of all those days, six in April 1996 stand out as the most thrilling, dramatic, controversial, glorious, agonizing, captivating, riveting days in the history of the franchise.

From Tuesday, April 16 through Sunday, April 21, 1996, the Lightning and its fans lived through the franchise's most shining and electrifying moments.

In February of that year, few thought the Lightning would be doing more than playing golf in mid April. On Valentine's Day, the Lightning was 22-24-8, seemingly on its way to missing the playoffs as it had in each of its previous three seasons of existence.

But starting with a 4-2 victory against eventual Cup-champion Colorado on Feb. 15 and ending with a 1-1 tie on March 13 against Philadelphia, the Lightning went on amazing 10-1-2 run that led to the Bolts' first playoff appearance.

The first-round opponent would be the big, bad Flyers.

The first six days of the series would become a miniseries with heroes and villains, ups and downs, joys and heartbreaks. It remains the greatest six days in the history of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

DAY 1: April 16, 1996

The series opener was a horror show for coach Terry Crisp, his worst fears realized. His team seemed paralyzed by fear inside the Philadelphia Spectrum, which was so crammed by savage orange-clad Flyers fans that the walls seemed dangerously close to cracking open.

The old building shook when the Flyers scored 55 seconds into the playoffs. The Flyers flashed the headlights at the deer dressed in Lightning uniforms. Before the game was seven minutes old, the score was 3-0.

"We were sort of like a kid in new waters," Crisp said. "We were standing around watching, and everybody else was swimming, stroking."

A joke filtered through the pressbox: Could the Lightning be eliminated in this best-of-seven series in one period?

The lead swelled to 6-0 in the second and goalie Daren Puppa, the Lightning savior who carried the team on his fragile back and was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy that season, was sitting stunned on the bench, pulled after an embarrassing performance.

The Lightning showed a little life late in the game, cutting the Flyers lead in half. But a late Philadelphia goal put the exclamation point on a rout: 7-3!

"We got beat pretty bad in that first game in Philly," said Rob Zamuner, the former Lightning forward. "We had a little talk later, and the older guys spoke up and it was a calming influence on us."

The Lightning went to bed that night convinced everything was going to be fine. It had no idea it was going to wake up to a thundering storm.

DAY 2: April 17, 1996

Lightning defenseman Roman Hamrlik sat in the corner of a cold and damp locker room inside the Twin Rinks practice rink in Pennsauken, N.J., and started talking about the train wreck that was Game 1. Soon the words started coming faster and faster from the cornerstone of the franchise, the first-ever pick and the team's All-Star that season. He turned on the hose and couldn't stop it:

He didn't like Crisp, he said. He no longer wanted to play for Crisp. He wished assistant Wayne Cashman was the head coach. He was tired of Crisp's yelling, his berating, his use of extreme vulgarity to pick out his smallest flaw after every shift.

He had enough, he said, of Crisp. One or the other had to go eventually.

When Crisp heard Hamrlik's comments, he fumed. But he refused to fire back, knowing now - between the first two Lightning playoff games ever - was neither the time nor the place to get in a spitting match with his best player. It was an issue for another day, but now Crisp, with major dissension in his ranks, wondered if the Lightning even had a chance of winning a game in the series.

DAY 3: April 18, 1996

The first warning shot of Game 2, the first sign the Lightning wasn't going to go away quietly, was fired by nasty Lightning defenseman Igor Ulanov. A healthy scratch in Game 1, the Russian who looked and acted like a villain out of a James Bond movie hit the ice like a wild animal who had been uncaged. Two years earlier, he nearly decapitated Flyers superstar Eric Lindros with a devastating hit while playing for Winnipeg.

He wanted to see if he could do it again.

Ulanov put Lindros in his cross-hairs and delivered a crunching hip check, leaving Lindros crumpled on the ice. With help, Lindros left the ice for the night. He would get his revenge a few games later in a blood-filled fight.

"The only thing I remember about the games (of that series) was me and Ulanov," Lindros said. "Never a dull moment."

Ulanov's hit announced this night would be different. The 98-pound kid had punched the bully right in the chops.

Playing without the franchise's leading scorer, the injured Brian Bradley, the Lightning turned to Puppa, who was brilliant. Alex Selivanov scored for Tampa Bay in the second period to tie the score 1-1 and set up overtime.

In overtime, Puppa was the epitome of a goalie who stood on his head.

At 9:05 of the extra session, Lightning veteran Brian Bellows stunned the Flyers and the packed Spectrum with a goal than evened the series at one game apiece.

The Lightning was headed back to Tampa Bay.

History awaited.

DAY 4: April, 19, 1996

"We got back from the airport at 2 in the morning and a couple hundred people were waiting for us," said then-Lightning backup goalie Jeff Reese. "That's back when we still walked through the airport. We got off the plane, and we were just stunned."

That night, though, Puppa went to bed and felt a twinge in his back. He had them before, but this one was worse.

Way worse.

DAY 5: April 20, 1996

In 1996, the Lightning had a defenseman named Michel Petit. His nickname was Mike Small. Get it? The name fit. Even though he was a big man, he was quiet, unassuming. Until this day.

Saying more in a 10-minute span then he did in his entire lone season in Tampa Bay, Petit essentially called the Flyers a bunch of babies.

"To give hits, you've got to be able to take hits," he said. "And that's their problem. They can't take hits. Every time they get hit, they complain, you know."

Now the series, a true-blue bonafide playoff feud, was on.

Puppa was not. He could barely move because of the back spasms. Reese, who had played all of 19 games that season, would be called upon to play the biggest home game in Lightning history.

DAY 6: April 21, 1996

On a Sunday afternoon, Tampa Bay, (Florida!) became Hockeytown. A crowd of 25,945 - the most ever to watch an NHL game - shouldered their way into what is now Tropicana Field.

"It was almost like a Bucs game," Zamuner said. "There were signs everywhere, you couldn't even see the crowd."

Even the Flyers were impressed. Then and now.

"What was it called (then)? The ThunderDome?" Lindros said. "It was incredible. It really was. That's a huge number of people, just enormous. In hockey, you think of (Joe Louis Arena in Detroit), which is a little over 20 grand. There, you bumped it up seven eight more grand."

In a wild game, the Flyers took leads of 3-1 and 4-3, but Game 2 hero Bellows scored 79 seconds into the third period and the teams again headed for overtime.

"That day, Terry (Crisp) wore a hockey tie and there was a scoreboard on it," Crisp's wife, Sheila, recalls. "The score said 5-4. On the back of the tie was the name of the kid who drew the picture for the tie. His name was Jeff. Our son's name is Jeff. We figured that was a good omen. We were meant to win."

The Lightning did. At 2:04 of overtime, Selivanov scored what still ranks as the greatest goal in franchise history to give the Bolts a 2-1 lead in the series.

"I've done a lot of things in my career," then-Lightning general manager Phil Esposito said. "I've won Stanley Cups, played in All-Star games, made it to the Hall of Fame. But that moment, when Alex scored that goal, still is the most thrilling thing I've ever been a part of."

"At that moment," Reese said, "I was convinced we were going to win the series."

EPILOGUE

The Lightning didn't. Without Puppa, who tried to play, but simply couldn't, Tampa Bay couldn't hang with the Flyers.

"His back simply gave out," Reese said. "He carried the team all year and simply couldn't anymore. He just plain wore out."

Despite setting yet another attendance record (28,183), the Lightning lost Game 4, 4-1.

The Flyers then won Game 5 in Philadelphia by the same score. The emotion of the season and the series boiled over that night when Esposito berated a female reporter from New Jersey.

"I got fined $10,000 because of it," Esposito said.

The series ended in six games on April 27 at the ThunderDome with a convincing 6-1 Flyers victory. But the victory proved costly for the Flyers. Blaming the series against the Lightning, the Flyers ran out of gas in the next round and were eliminated by the Florida Panthers, who made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final.

"If we had a healthy Daren Puppa, we win that series," Crisp said.

"All I know," Esposito said, "is if Daren doesn't get hurt, maybe we're the team that goes to the finals that year."

After Game 6, the ThunderDome crowd gave the Lightning a thunderous standing ovation.

"I've never seen that before," Reese said.

Neither had Crisp.

"I walked across the ice and just stopped on center ice," Crisp said. "I turned to (assistant coach Chris Reichart) and said, "Just stand here and absorb this.' I just wanted to take it all in.

I remember thinking, "We may never see this again.' "

He was right.

[Last modified May 5, 2004, 10:38:07]

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