The season that began in ’03 ended in threes for the New York Islanders. The Tampa Bay Lightning eliminated them in the conference quarter-finals by winning games with three goals and thanks to three shutouts by goalie Nikolai Khabibulin.
After topping the ranks of the Southeast Division and placing second in the NHL with 106 points (46-22-8-6), Tampa Bay had home ice advantage for the 2003-04 playoffs. Their quarter-final opponents, the Islanders, had finished third in the Atlantic Division with 91 points (38-29-11-4). The first two games were held at Florida and the next two at New York before returning to Florida.
All of the first four games were three-goal victories. The Lightning shutout the Islanders 3-0 on April 8, thanks to Khabibulin’s 30 saves. Two nights later, the Islanders took their only turn at winning 3-0. Khabibulin had let in a soft goal in the first and another goal in the third. Since the final Islanders’ goal was an empty netter, Khabibulin had blocked 22 of 24 shots made on him.
New York fans at Nassau Coliseum were quite unhappy when their team lost both games there with a score of 3-0. During Game 4, the unhappy crowd spent the third period sporadically chanting, “We want a goal.” They then threw playoff towels and crumpled papers onto the ice as the teams skated back to the locker rooms. Lightning defenseman Dan Boyle said, “It shows we got their team frustrated and their fans. They feed off that crowd. By the second period, they started booing and turning on them.”
Game 4, held on April 14, 2004, allowed Khabibulin to tie an NHL record by earning three shutouts in a single series. Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils had shutout the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim three times (also all with scores of 3-0) to win the 2002-03 Stanley Cup finals. The “Khabibulin Trilogy” was more surprising as Khabibulin had only had three shutouts throughout the 58 games he played during the regular season. His goalie coach, Jeff Reese, was not surprised by the success of the world-class goaltender. “He’s making it look flawless, making it look easy. That’s when Nik is on top of his game. He’s reacting, letting the puck hit him. He’s very patient right now. He’s in the zone, He’s on top of his game.” Coach John Tortorella added, “He’s been our best player. I just think he is playing with confidence and he’s just going about his business.” Sure enough, “The Bulin Wall” had made a total of 113 saves on 115 shots throughout the series for a .983 save percentage. One of Tampa Bay’s top scorers, Martin St. Louis, credited Khabibulin for their success. “He’s been tremendous. You are going as far as your goalie, that’s not a lie. . . . You need to score goals, too, but it all starts with good defense and he’s the backbone of that good defense.”
Back at St. Pete Times Forum on April 16, the home crowd enjoyed the final score of both Game 5 and the series. At the end of regulation, the teams were tied at 2-2. St. Louis scored goal three for the Lightning just over four minutes into overtime. Khabibulin made 24 saves on 26 shots during the 3-2 victory.
Tampa Bay went on to knock out the Montreal Canadiens (4-0), the Philadelphia Flyers (4-3), and finally the Calgary Flames (4-3) to win their only Stanley Cup to date.
- “Quest for the Cup,” Tampa Bay Times, 15 April 2004, p. 1X-4X.
- “Three Of A Kind,” Tampa Tribune, 15 April 2004, sports, pp. 1, 6-7.