As Lightning enter playoffs, it’s not fair to compare them to 2003-04 team

in Apolitical/Sports/Top Headlines by

That team did it.

This team might.

That team, the 2003-04 Lightning, won 16 playoff games. That team lifted the cup. That team skated into immortality.

This team? Well, it’s one of 16 that has a chance.

When it comes to comparing a team that took home a trophy and a team that hopes to, that’s pretty much all you can say. As the Lighting opens its post-season play tonight, it has a pulse. It has an opportunity.

But if you freeze the moment when that team was on the porch, too, you won’t find a lot of other differences between that Lightning team and this Lightning team. That team, too, was young and exciting. That team, too, played breathless hockey.

Which one is better? If you forget how that team caught fire, and caught breaks in the matches it faced and caught a hot goaltender, well, there really isn’t that much.

This team had 108 points this season; that one had 106 in 2003-04. This team won 50 games; that one won 46. In the SRS rating done by the Hockey Reference website, both teams had a 0.56. This team played the 30th-ranked strength of schedule; that one played the 30th-ranked strength of schedule.

So how would you rate them? That team was probably tougher. It had 951 minutes in penalties; this one had only 794. This team is probably deeper. It’s end-of-the-benchers are probably better.

That team was awfully talented. So is this team.

Flip a coin.

It can be hard to get a foothold against immortality. Everyone knows that team won, and everyone knows this team is trying.

Remember, we are rating the teams as they entered the playoffs, so it’s unfair to count Nikolai Khabibulin’s 16 wins in the post-season. If you go back in time, Khabibulin had had a few shaky moments during the season. He won only 38 games, and his save percentage (.910) and his goal-against average (2.33) were actually worse than Ben Bishop’s. Bishop won 40 games this year, which offsets a lot of his numbers.

But can Bishop catch fire the way Khabibulin did? We’ll see.

In 2003-04,  the Lighting had a 16.22 power play percentage (16th in the NHL) and a 84.89 penalty kill (10th). This year, those numbers were 15.79  (14th) and 83.66 (tied for seventh).

And how about the individual skaters?

Except for Dave Andreychuck, that team was young. Marty St. Louis was only 28.  Vinny Lecavalier and Brad Richards were both 23. Ruslan Fedotenko was 25.

This team is even younger. Steven Stamkos is 25. Tyler Johnson is 24. Nikita Kucherov is 21. Victor Hedman is 24. Ondrej Palat is 24.

You can argue that St. Louis had a better year that year than Stamkos did this year. Yes, Stamkos scored five more goals, with 43. But Marty had 22 more points. Not only that, he was the league MVP. No one is talking Stammer for MVP.

Who else? Well, it’s about a tie. Lecavalier had 32 goals in 2003-04; Johnson had 29 this year (with slightly more points). Fredrick Modin scored 29 then; Kucherov scored 29 this year. Richards scored 26 then; Ryan Callahan scored 24 this year.

Coaching? John Tortorella, the taskmaster, won Coach of the Year that year. Jon Cooper, calm Coop, should win it this year.

So which team is better?

Easy. That one is is … so far. The only way this Lightning team can measure up in the end is to also win the Cup. Then you can start arguing about numbers. But it’s a bottom line league. Until they are carving names on a trophy, the arguments are hollow.

That team has its names on the Cup, after all.

This team? Starting Thursday night, it can dream.

Gary Shelton is one of the most recognized and honored sportswriters in the history of the state. He has won the APSE's national columnist of the year twice and finished in the top 10 eight times. He was named the Florida Sportswriter of the Year six times. Gary joined SaintPetersBlog in the spring, helping to bring a sports presence to the website. Over his time in sports writing, Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls, 10 Olympics, Final Fours, Masters, Wimbledons and college national championships. He was there when the Bucs won a Super Bowl, when the Lightning won a Stanley Cup and when the Rays went to a World Series. He has seen Florida, FSU and Miami all win national championships, and he covered Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden and Don Shula along the way. He and his wife Janet have four children: Eric, Kevin, K.C. and Tori. To contact, visit garysheltonsports@gmail.com.