The forgotten Lightning playoff run

The story of the 2010-11 Tampa Bay Lightning

Dwayne Roloson’s teammates congratulate him on a game seven shutout in Pittsburgh.
Photo provided by

Dwayne Roloson’s teammates congratulate him on a game seven shutout in Pittsburgh. Photo provided by

Bennett Carollo, Sports Editor

With no live sports being played amidst the coronavirus pandemic, reruns of classic games have taken over on channels such as SunSports, where the Tampa Bay Lightning’s run to win the Stanley Cup in 2004 has taken center stage. Watching the ’04 team march to a championship has gotten me thinking about my favorite Lightning playoff run. No, I’m not talking about the 2018 team that sputtered against the Capitals in the Eastern Conference Finals, or the 2016 run that met a similar fate to the Penguins on the cusp of the Cup Finals. I’m not even talking about the team’s only other Finals appearance in 2015, although the game six loss to the Blackhawks marks the only time I have literally been brought to tears over sports and the run as a whole is a close second in my book. My favorite Lightning season is one that many new Lightning fans are unaware of and that never gets talked about today. It came before the Jon Cooper-era. Before the Lightning were known for winning and wearing blue and white. The playoff run that I remember the most fondly is the one that got me enthralled with the Lightning in the first place: the 2011 march to the ECF.

I was only eight years old at the start of the 2010-11 Lightning season, but that was the year that I became a fan of both the Lightning and the sport of hockey. It didn’t hurt that this particular season happened to be the first one where I had season tickets. Don’t call me a bandwagoner, because to say that not much was expected of this iteration of the team would be an understatement. Tampa Bay was coming off three straight seasons of missing the playoffs, and there wasn’t much hope in sight. Sure, the team had some bright spots, most notably a young phenom named Steven Stamkos who had just won the Rocket Richard trophy with 51 goals in the prior season. Nonetheless, a lack of scoring depth, poor goaltending, and an overall old team filled with players past their prime left few to expect the 2010-11 Lightning to amount to much.

The first big splashes made by this Lightning team came before the season started, with Steve Yzerman being named the team’s new general manager and Guy Boucher subsequently named head coach. While Yzerman has gone on to play a much bigger role in the grand scheme of things for the Lightning, Boucher was more of a key figure in the story I am telling. His coaching skills and infamous trap-style defense paid dividends immediately, as it didn’t take long for the team on the ice to start turning heads. A 7-2-1 October, which were the first ten hockey games I have any memory of either attending or watching, put Tampa Bay on top of the East. The Lightning continued their solid play throughout the next few months, but there was one glaring problem that was holding them back. This was a problem that had haunted the team ever since Nikolai Khabibulin left after the Cup winning season in ’04: goaltending. The tandem of Mike Smith and Dan Ellis were simply not getting it done. Enter Yzerman for his first big move as GM of the Lightning: trading for veteran goalie and noted playoff hero Dwayne Roloson. Roloson was an immediate upgrade and helped the Lightning in their playoff push.

Tampa Bay was neck and neck with the powerhouse Washington Capitals for the Southeast division crown all season long, but ultimately finished with 103 points and had to settle for the five seed in the east. Nonetheless, a return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs could be seen as nothing but a resounding success. The resurgent Lightning were led by the aforementioned Stamkos, who tallied 45 goals and 91 points, and also by the always reliable Martin St. Louis, who led the team with 99 points. They had their work cut out for them in the first round, however, with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Even with both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin sidelined with injuries, the consensus opinion was that the Penguins would handle the surprise Lightning team with relative ease. Through four games of the series, it looked like this would indeed be the case, as Pittsburgh jumped out to a 3-1 series lead. It seemed as if this would be another forgettable and brief playoff trip for Tampa Bay. However, in game five with their backs against the wall, the 2011 Lightning made a statement, throttling the Penguins 8-2 in front of their home crowd. After a 4-2 win in game six at home, the stage was set for game seven. Midway through the second period, forward Dominic Moore skated behind the Pittsburgh net before flipping a pass behind his back to unlikely hero Sean Bergenheim for the score. That would be all the Lightning needed, as Roloson slammed the door and Tampa Bay was off to round two with a 1-0 win. Regrettably, I didn’t watch this game live because it was past my bedtime on a third-grade school night. I recall being crushed when I saw a kid at my school wearing a Penguins shirt the following day, as I assumed he was wearing it for a victory, and then being overjoyed when I watched the recording of the game after school.

Round two pit the Lightning against Alex Ovechkin and the President’s Trophy-winning Capitals juggernaut. Once again, no one picked Tampa Bay to advance. Unphased, the Lightning rode a wave of momentum from their round one comeback to a 4-2 game one win. They were well on their way to taking game two, leading 2-1 with less than two minutes remaining, when Ovechkin dealt a devastating blow with a tying goal. Somehow, I convinced my dad to let me stay up for my first taste of playoff overtime. I didn’t have to wait long to see my first Lightning playoff OT winner, as Tampa Bay caught the Caps on a change and a series of crisp passes led to team captain Vincent Lecavalier burying the winner right in front of the goal. Another come-from-behind 4-3 win in game three gave Tampa Bay a vice grip on the series. Unlike Pittsburgh, they didn’t waste their chance to finish off the series, as they took game four 5-3 to complete a stunning sweep. Listening to “I Gotta Feeling” blasting through the then-called St. Pete Times Forum in the waning moments of game four remains one of my favorite moments as a sports fan.

The opponent in the conference finals was the dreaded Boston Bruins, who were fresh off a second-round sweep of their own. Finally, it seemed as if the heart and tenacity that the Lightning had played with had earned some respect from national pundits, as the predictions for this series were split. In game one, Tampa Bay flexed their muscles in Boston, jumping to a 3-0 lead and cruising to a 5-2 victory for their eighth consecutive playoff win. Impressive, to say the least. Game two was a reality check, however, as the Bruins used a huge second period to win 6-5 and even up the series. In game three, B’s goalie Tim Thomas stifled the Lightning attack, stopping all 31 shots he faced in a 2-0 shutout. Early in game four, it looked as if the Lightning were overwhelmed and that the magic had run out. Three questionable goals surrendered by Roloson saw Tampa Bay enter the first intermission staring at a 3-0 deficit and a possible 3-1 series deficit if they failed to mount a comeback. Sure, they’d managed to climb out of such a hole against the Penguins, but trying to do it twice in one playoff run would be pushing their luck too far. Enter depth forward Teddy Purcell, an unlikely hero in a playoffs full of them for the Lightning. He scored twice in quick succession to begin a comeback that would end in a monumental 5-3 Tampa Bay win. The heroics of maligned backup Mike Smith, who stopped all 21 shots he faced in relief of Roloson, should also not be forgotten. Game four is to this day my favorite Lightning game that I’ve ever attended.

Despite an early 1-0 lead in game five, Thomas again frustrated Tampa Bay en route to a 3-1 loss. The Lightning were once again on the brink of elimination as they headed home for game six. In a back and forth afar, St. Louis’s third period goal would end up being the winner in a 5-4 victory. Then came game seven. Winner to the Stanley Cup Final. The referees let the players decide the game, with not a single penalty being called all game. Neither team gave an inch. In a memorable showing of heart and determination with a chance to play for the Cup on the line, Stamkos took a slapshot to the face and returned minutes later with his nose stuffed with gauze and wearing a cage to protect his face. As the game wore on, there was still no score deep into the third period. Just as he was in game seven against Pittsburgh, Roloson was lights out in this game seven, turning away shot after shot from the Bruins. Unfortunately, Thomas too was on his game. The Lightning were unable to solve the Bruins netminder and Boston dealt a crushing blow when a two-on-one break led to an unsavable goal from Nathan Horton. That was the only way they were going to beat the man they called “Roli” on that night. The final horn sounded on a crushing 1-0 loss. Roloson was brilliant in defeat, turning away 37 of 38 shots. Thomas, however, was a perfect 24 for 24. I was numb after watching this wild ride of a season come to an end and I was unable to take my eyes off the TV as Boston celebrated. As “Don’t Stop Believin” blared through TD Garden and through my speakers, I was sure the Lightning would be back.

The Lightning would return to the ECF, but with an entirely different team. Stamkos and Victor Hedman were the only holdouts from the 2011 team that played in the 2015 Cup Final. That’s part of what makes this playoff run so captivating to me, the lightning in a bottle aspect of it (pun intended). Although at the time the nine-year-old me couldn’t see it and had high expectations for the next season, the Lightning were bound to regress. Guys like Roloson and Lecavalier had turned back the clock and delivered stellar playoff performances, but it wasn’t sustainable. Role players such as Purcell, Steve Downie, and Dominic Moore played way over their heads during the playoff run. Other key contributors left the team altogether after the season, as Bergenheim and Simon Gagne found new teams and reliable defenseman Mattias Ohlund would never play again due to injury. As I mentioned before, the years that led up to the season were unremarkable and the years that followed were equally pitiful. An aging Roloson regressed horribly in the 2011-12 season and not even Stamkos’ 60 goals could rescue the team from the obscene amount of goals they let up (a league high 281). The result was 84 points and no playoffs. a 13-17-1 start to the 2012-13 season led to Boucher’s firing and the beginning of a youth movement in Tampa Bay, as now familiar faces like Tyler Johnson and Ondej Palat made their debuts. Although the rebuild wouldn’t last long, thanks to Yzerman’s wizardry, it is still astounding how a team went from one goal from the Stanley Cup Finals to completely dismantled in two years.

Even if I do watch the Lightning hoist the Cup someday, its hard to see a team captivating me the way the 2010-11 Lightning did. Even as they played horribly the next few seasons, I was at almost every home game. That gritty, never-say-die, underdog bunch of players got me hooked on hockey. Growing up also has something to do with it, as that youthful wonder I had watching the 2011 team defy all odds on their way to the ECF will never be matched.