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Ranking the 5 Most Surprising Seasons in Tampa Bay Lightning History

Eric SteitzAnalyst IIIAugust 6, 2014

Ranking the 5 Most Surprising Seasons in Tampa Bay Lightning History

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    The Tampa Bay Lightning have had both positive and negative surprises in their two decades of history.
    The Tampa Bay Lightning have had both positive and negative surprises in their two decades of history.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Lightning have provided highs and lows in their first 21 seasons in the NHL. The Bolts have appeared in the Stanley Cup playoffs seven times. Conversely, they have finished fifth or lower in their division nine times. Combined, the Bolts have put together some surprising seasons in their history.

    After joining the league in 1992-93, the Lightning missed the playoffs in nine of their first 10 seasons, including the lockout-shortened campaign in 1994-95. They also had six seasons with less than 60 points during that span, and things looked awfully dim in the Sunshine State.

    Fortunately for Lightning fans, the team turned things in a positive direction in the early 2000s and have maintained a competitive club for the majority of the century. With such polarizing campaigns in the franchise's history, here are the five most surprising seasons.

Honorable Mention: 1995-96

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    In 1996, the Bolts made their first playoff appearance in franchise history.
    In 1996, the Bolts made their first playoff appearance in franchise history.Glenn Cratty/Getty Images

    Surprising Feat: First playoff appearance in franchise history after three years in NHL

    The Lightning didn't have much success coming out of the expansion in 1992-93. That season, the Bolts had 53 points and finished sixth in the Norris Division. Tampa Bay won just six games in the final three months of the season.

    Things didn't improve over the next couple of years, as the Lightning finished seventh and sixth in the Atlantic Division. Coach Terry Crisp managed to bring a glimmer of hope to Florida following the shortened season.

    Led by Brian Bradley's 79 points and Daren Puppa's 29-16-9 record, the Lightning surprised many by finishing six games above .500 and reaching the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

5. 2003-04

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    The 2003-04 season remains the pinnacle of the Lightning's achievements.
    The 2003-04 season remains the pinnacle of the Lightning's achievements.CHRIS O'MEARA/Associated Press

    Surprising Feat: Hoisting the Stanley Cup

    The 2003-04 season brings back some of the best memories for the Lightning. From Martin St. Louis' bleeding face in the playoffs to his game-winner in Game 6 against Calgary, Bolts fans will never forget the 2003-04 season.

    The Lightning proved the year before that they were a good team, but did they have the magic to reach the top? The Southeast Division was awful that season, which led to what might have been viewed as an inflated 106 points for the Lightning. Atlanta was second in the division with 78 points, good enough for 10th in the East.

    Even if the Bolts did make it out of the Eastern Conference Final, it looked like all roads led to Presidents' Trophy-winning Detroit. They were led by someone named Steve Yzerman and other scrubs (not) like Nicklas Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan and Pavel Datsyuk.

    But the Lightning persisted, thanks in large part to St. Louis, to lift their first and only Stanley Cup in franchise history.

4.1997-98

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    1998 was a rough season for the Lightning in every aspect.
    1998 was a rough season for the Lightning in every aspect.STEVE NESIUS/Associated Press

    Surprising Feat: Finished 13th in the Eastern Conference

    Two years earlier, the Lightning made their first postseason appearance. In 1996-97, Tampa Bay finished just three points out of a repeat playoff spot and looked like they were ready to qualify on a yearly basis. Then things took an abrupt turn south.

    The Lightning went 17-55-10 in 1997-98 under the direction of three different head coaches. To put things into perspective, Tampa Bay finished 19 points behind a rebuilding Florida team to settle squarely in the Eastern Conference cellar. They were outscored by 118 goals in the process.

    Things should have looked up for the Bolts with a No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Unfortunately, the Lightning traded away their first- and second-round picks. They didn't have a selection until they grabbed goaltender Evgeny Konstantinov with the 67th overall pick.

3. 2002-03

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    The Bolts returned to relevance during the 2002-03 season, a warning to the league for the next year.
    The Bolts returned to relevance during the 2002-03 season, a warning to the league for the next year.CHRIS O'MEARA/Associated Press

    Surprising Feat: Playoff appearance after six straight misses

    There was a time when the hockey world didn't know who John Tortorella was. The Lightning took a chance on the unproven young coach, hiring him before the 2000-01 season. His first two seasons in Tampa Bay didn't go well, pointing to another failed experiment behind the bench.

    But in 2002-03, everything changed. The Bolts won the Southeast Division to clinch the No. 3 spot in the East despite only 93 points. Tortorella's Lightning beat division-foe Washington in the first round before falling to eventual Stanley Cup champion New Jersey.

    Nikolai Khabibulin backstopped the Lightning with a 30-22-11 record. Vinny Prospal, Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards led the team offensively in what would prove to be the first big surprise from the Tortorella era in Tampa Bay.

2. 2013-14

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    The Bolts surprised the hockey world with a breakout campaign last season.
    The Bolts surprised the hockey world with a breakout campaign last season.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Surprising Feat: Second-place Atlantic Division finish

    Last season put the Lightning back into the spotlight of the NHL world. The Bolts would have been excused if they had a mediocre campaign with still-new head coach Jon Cooper, a young group of forwards and an unproven goaltender.

    But they didn't. Even after losing superstar Steven Stamkos for months, the Lightning continued to play at a high level, anchored by an exciting style of play and Vezina Trophy-worthy goaltender Ben Bishop's consistency.

    One year after finishing 14th in the Eastern Conference, the Lightning rebounded to contend for the Atlantic Division crown. The quick exit from the playoffs left things a bit sour, but that shouldn't take away from the pleasant surprise that 2013-14 provided.

1. 2010-11

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    One goal away from a second Stanley Cup Final, the Lightning's 2010-11 season was the most surprising in franchise history.
    One goal away from a second Stanley Cup Final, the Lightning's 2010-11 season was the most surprising in franchise history.Associated Press

    Surprising Feat: Eastern Conference Final

    One of the most heartbreaking moments in Lightning history came in 2010-11. After missing the playoffs for three straight years, the Bolts finished fifth in the Eastern Conference with 103 points but matched up against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the playoffs.

    The Penguins entered the postseason with an 8-2 record in the last 10 games but would be without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Bolts pulled a mini-upset in the opening round before sweeping top-seeded Washington.

    The seven-game series against Boston in the Eastern Conference Final should still make Lightning fans uneasy. The 1-0 loss in Game 7 is a nearly unforgettable moment.

    This feat was made more impressive by the piecemeal of goaltenders used throughout the season, losing captain Vincent Lecavalier to a broken hand and having first-year head coach Guy Boucher at the helm.

    Despite the heartbreaking end, this is the most surprising season in Lightning history.

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